Parmenides’ physician: the non-doctor

“That doctor was useless, they kept talking about numbers and philosophy”. Hmm.. sounds like a proper real doctor.

Learning objectives

1. Explore what doctors don’t do

2. Consider how the Parmenides can help us think about our profession

3. Nothing can be made from nothing

We’ve considered what qualities the Form of a Doctor may possess. Another way to clarify our search might be to consider an alternative approach: what qualities doesn’t this Form need?

Think about a chair. What are the qualities that all chairs possess? Does a chair have to have four legs, can it have one leg, can a chair be a chair without any legs? What is ‘chairness’?


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If that wasn’t complex enough, now think of what ‘doctorness’ isn’t. Should doctors check whether their patients live in cold homes, prescribe boilers, refer to food banks or organise lunch clubs? Are these critical components of the Form or can they be dispensed with?


What else could we do without yet still participate in the nature of a Doctor?




Anything else?

Plato was one of his own critics. The theory of Forms is challenged in the dialogue Parmenides. Plato has a young Socrates defend the theory at a meeting with Parmenides and Zeno. After a skirmish with Zeno, Parmenides takes over to ask Socrates what types of Forms (or Ideas) he would recognise:

Parmenides proceeded: And would you also make absolute ideas of the just and the beautiful and the good, and of all that class?

Yes, he [Socrates] said, I should.

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, Parmenides, as to whether I ought to include them or not.

And 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, said Socrates; 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.

The theory of Forms is often associated with these higher Forms such as the Good or the Beautiful. We’ve been exploring a ‘lesser’ form, that of the Doctor. Socrates is undecided about whether to include things such as humans as being acceptable forms.


If there is human Form, would a Doctor partake in this or not?

Where would non-human (e.g. artificial intelligence) medical intervention fit in?

What qualities of being a doctor are unique to human beings?

Parmenides continues his questioning by asking Socrates whether particular things become like the Forms they participate with:

But I should like to know whether you mean that there are certain ideas of which all other things partake, and from which they derive their names; that similars, for example, become similar, because they partake of similarity; and great things become great, because they partake of greatness; and that just and beautiful things become just and beautiful, because they partake of justice and beauty?

Yes, certainly, said Socrates that is my meaning. Then each individual partakes either of the whole of the idea or else of a part of the idea? Can there be any other mode of participation?

There cannot be, he said.



Do doctors become doctors only because they partake of doctorness?

Then do you think that the whole idea is one, and yet, being one, is in each one of the many?

Why not, Parmenides? said Socrates.

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.

Nay, but 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, Socrates, of making one in many places at once. You mean to say, that if I were to spread out a sail and cover a number of men, there would be one whole including many—is not that your meaning?

I think so.

And would you say that the whole sail includes each man, or a part of it only, and different parts different men?

The latter.

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

That seems to follow.

Then would you like to say, Socrates, that the one idea is really divisible and yet remains one?

Certainly not, he said.

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—is that conceivable?


Or will each equal thing, if possessing some small portion of equality less than absolute equality, be equal to some other thing by virtue of that portion only?


Or suppose one of us to have a portion of smallness; this is but a part of the small, and therefore the absolutely small is greater; if the absolutely small be greater, that to which the part of the small is added will be smaller and not greater than before.

How absurd!

Then in what way, Socrates, will all things participate in the ideas, if they are unable to participate in them either as parts or wholes?

Indeed, he said, you have asked a question which is not easily answered.



Are the principles that guide doctors applicable to all doctors, regardless of location and time?

Can doctors pick and choose which principles to follow depending on their particular circumstances?

Do such principles even exist and where do they originate from?

In my [Socrates] opinion, the ideas are, as it were, patterns fixed in nature, and other things are like them, and resemblances of them—what is meant by the participation of other things in the ideas, is really assimilation to them.

But if, said he [Parmenides], the individual is like the idea, must not the idea also be like the individual, in so far as the individual is a resemblance of the idea?That which is like, cannot be conceived of as other than the like of like.


And when two things are alike, must they not partake of the same idea?

They must.

And will not that of which the two partake, and which makes them alike, be the idea itself?


Then the idea cannot be like the individual, or the individual 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; and new ideas will be always arising, if the idea resembles that which partakes of it?

Quite true.

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

It would seem so.

Do you see then, Socrates, how great is the difficulty of affirming the ideas to be absolute?

Yes, indeed.



Where did you learn how to be ‘like’ a doctor?

How do individual doctors influence the profession as a whole?

Who decides what doctors should and shouldn’t do?

The Parmenides can be a challenging read. Yet, as Bertrand says ‘any hypothesis, however absurd, may be useful in science, if it enables a discoverer to conceive things in a new way’. He goes on to note that many modern philosophers (including Platonists) are ignorant of mathematics despite the emphasis that Plato placed on geometry.

Similarly, I would suggest that most modern doctors are ignorant of philosophy despite the attachment to the principles of the Hippocratic oath which is attributed to Hippocrates, notable for being one of the great philosophical doctors.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

You are young, Socrates, and therefore naturally regard the opinions of men; the time will come when philosophy will have a firmer hold of you, and you will not despise even the meanest things.



As doctors we may sometimes have role models or paradigm doctors who influence our behaviour and actions. Regulatory bodies, government departments, and policy makers lay down rules regarding expected conduct, but themselves may be devoid of doctors therefore bearing no resemblance to the profession. Individual doctors themselves may be able to influence the profession. Should doctors decide what doctors should do? An understanding of Philosophy may help with answering this. Doctors can be both one and many.

Further resources

Plato. Parmenides . Kindle Edition.

Russell. History of Western Philosophy.

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