Superphysics Superphysics
Chapter 1b

Parmenides' Reply to Socrates

by Plato Icon
8 minutes  • 1664 words

While Socrates was speaking, Pythodorus thought that Parmenides and Zeno were not pleased at the successive steps of the argument.

But still they gave the closest attention, and often looked at one another, and smiled as if in admiration of him.

When he had finished, Parmenides expressed their feelings:


Socrates, I admire the bent of your mind towards philosophy. Was this your own distinction between ideas in themselves and the things which partake of them?

Do you think that there is an idea of likeness apart from the likeness which we possess, and of the one and many, and of the other things which Zeno mentioned?

I think that there are such ideas
You would also make absolute ideas of the just and the beautiful and the good, and of all that class. And would you make an idea of man apart from us and from all other human creatures, or of fire and water?
I am often undecided as to whether I should include them or not.

Would you feel equally undecided, Socrates, about things of which the mention may provoke a smile?—I mean such things as hair, mud, dirt, or anything else which is vile and paltry.

Would you suppose that each of these has an idea distinct from the actual objects with which we come into contact, or not?


Certainly not.

Visible things like these are such as they appear to us, and I am afraid that there would be an absurdity in assuming any idea of them, although I sometimes get disturbed, and begin to think that there is nothing without an idea.

But then again, when I have taken up this position, I run away, because I am afraid that I may fall into a bottomless pit of nonsense, and perish; and so I return to the ideas of which I was just now speaking, and occupy myself with them.


Yes, Socrates. That is because you are still young.

The time will come when philosophy will have a firmer grasp of you, and then you will not despise even the meanest things. At your age, you are too much disposed to regard the opinions of men.

You mean that there are certain ideas which are commmon to all ideas, and from which they derive their names. For example, similars become similar because they have similarity. Great things become great, because they have greatness. Just and beautiful things become just and beautiful, because they have justice and beauty.

If follows that each individual has either of the whole of the idea or else of a part of the idea. There cannot be any other mode of participation.

To you, the whole idea is one, and yet, being one, is in each one of the many.

But this cannot be, because one and the same thing will exist as a whole at the same time in many separate individuals, and will therefore be in a state of separation from itself.

No, the idea may be like the day which is one and the same in many places at once, and yet continuous with itself. In this way, each idea may be one and the same in all at the same time.

I like your way of making one in many places at once. It means if I were to spread out a sail and cover a number of men, there would be one whole including many.

The whole sail includes a part of each man only, and different parts different men.

Then, Socrates, the ideas themselves will be divisible. Things which participate in them will have a part of them only and not the whole idea existing in each of them.

Then it means that the one idea is really divisible and yet remains one?

Certainly not

Suppose that you divide absolute greatness, and that of the many great things, each one is great in virtue of a portion of greatness less than absolute greatness. But this is not conceivable.

Each equal thing, if possessing some small portion of equality less than absolute equality, cannot be equal to some other thing by virtue of that portion only.

So how will all things have ideas, if they are unable to have in them either as parts or wholes?

You see a number of great objects, and when you look at them there seems to you to be one and the same idea (or nature) in them all; hence you conceive of greatness as one.

And if you go on and allow your mind to embrace in one view the idea of greatness and of great things which are not the idea, and to compare them, will not another greatness arise, which will appear to be the source of all these

Then another idea of greatness now comes into view over and above absolute greatness, and the individuals which partake of it; and then another, over and above all these, by virtue of which they will all be great, and so each idea instead of being one will be infinitely multiplied.

But the ideas are thoughts only. They have no proper existence except in our minds. In that case, each idea may still be one, and not experience this infinite multiplication.

Thoughts must always have an idea.

That idea must be of a single something. That something is attached by the thought to all, being a single form or nature.

If everything else participates in the ideas, then everything is either made up of thoughts, and that all things think; or that they are a thought that has no thought.

The ideas are patterns fixed in nature. Other things are like them, and resemblances of them. The participation of other things in the ideas is really assimilation to them.

But if the thought is like the idea then the idea also be like the thought in so far as the thought resembles the idea. That which is like, cannot be conceived of as other than the like of like.

And when two things are alike, they must partake of the same idea.

And will that of which the two partake, and which makes them alike, be the idea itself.

Then the idea cannot be like the thought, or the thought like the idea; for if they are alike, some further idea of likeness will always be coming to light, and if that be like anything else, another.

New ideas will be always arising, if the idea resembles that which partakes of it.

The theory, then, that other things participate in the ideas by resemblance, has to be given up, and some other mode of participation devised.

Thus, it is very difficult to affirm ideas to be absolute.

The greatest difficulty is:—If an opponent argues that these ideas must remain unknown, no one can prove to him that he is wrong, unless he who denies their existence be a man of great ability and knowledge, and is willing to follow a long and laborious demonstration.

He will remain unconvinced, and still insist that they cannot be known.

You, or any one who maintains the existence of absolute essences, will admit that they cannot exist in us.

Correct, for then they would be no longer absolute.

Therefore, when ideas are what they are in relation to one another, their essence is determined by a relation among themselves.

It has nothing to do with the resemblances, or whatever they are called from our viewpoint or sphere.

The things which are within our sphere and have the same names with them, are likewise only relative to one another, and not to the ideas which have the same names with them, but belong to themselves and not to them.

A master has a slave. There is nothing absolute in the relation between them, which is simply a relation of one man to another.

But there is also an idea of mastership in the abstract, which is relative to the idea of slavery in the abstract.

These natures have nothing to do with us, nor we with them; they are concerned with themselves only, and we with ourselves.


Absolute knowledge answers to absolute truth.

Each kind of absolute knowledge will answer to each kind of absolute being.

But the knowledge which we have, will answer to the truth which we have. Each kind of knowledge which we have, will be a knowledge of each kind of being which we have.

But the ideas themselves, as you admit, we have not, and cannot have.

And the absolute natures or kinds are known severally by the absolute idea of knowledge.

And we have not got the idea of knowledge.

Then none of the ideas are known to us, because we have no share in absolute knowledge.

Then the nature of the beautiful in itself, and of the good in itself, and all other ideas which we suppose to exist absolutely, are unknown to us.

A stranger consequence is= Is absolute knowledge a far more exact knowledge than our knowledge; and the same of beauty and of the rest?


If there was participation in absolute knowledge, no one is more likely than God to have this most exact knowledge.

But then, will God, having absolute knowledge, have a knowledge of human things?

We said that the ideas are not valid in relation to human things; nor human things in relation to them. The relations of either are limited to their respective spheres.

If God has this perfect authority and perfect knowledge, then his authority cannot rule us, nor his knowledge know us, or any human thing. This is the same as our authority not extending to the gods, nor our knowledge know anything which is divine.

Thus, they being gods are not our masters, neither do they know the things of men.

Yet, surely to deprive God of knowledge is monstrous.

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