Parmenides by Plato

Selection from “Parmenides” By Plato


“I see,” said Socrates, “and I accept your explanation. But tell me, do you not believe there is an idea of likeness in the abstract, [129a] and another idea of unlikeness, the opposite of the first, and that you and I and all things which we call many partake of these two? And that those which partake of likeness become like, and those which partake of unlikeness become unlike, and those which partake of both become both like and unlike, all in the manner and degree of their participation? And even if all things partake of both opposites, and are enabled by their participation to be both like and unlike themselves, [129b] what is there wonderful about that? For if anyone showed that the absolute like becomes unlike, or the unlike like, that would, in my opinion, be a wonder; but if he shows that things which partake of both become both like and unlike, that seems to me, Zeno, not at all strange, not even if he shows that all things are one by participation in unity and that the same are also many by participation in multitude; but if he shows that absolute unity is also many and the absolute many again are one, then I shall be amazed. [129c] The same applies to all other things. If he shows that the kinds and ideas in and by themselves possess these opposite qualities, it is marvellous but if he shows that I am both one and many, what marvel is there in that? He will say, when he wishes to show that I am many, that there are my right parts and my left parts, my front parts and my back parts, likewise upper and lower, all different; for I do, I suppose, partake of multitude; [129d] and when he wishes to show that I am one, he will say that we here are seven persons, of whom I am one, a man, partaking also of unity and so he shows that both assertions are true. If anyone then undertakes to show that the same things are both many and one—I mean such things as stones, sticks, and the like—we shall say that he shows that they are many and one, but not that the one is many or the many one; he says nothing wonderful, but only what we should all accept. If, however, as I was saying just now, he first distinguishes the abstract ideas, such as likeness and unlikeness, [129e] multitude and unity, rest and motion, and the like, and then shows that they can be mingled and separated, I should,” said he, “be filled with amazement, Zeno. Now I think this has been very manfully discussed by you; but I should, as I say, be more amazed if anyone could show in the abstract ideas, which are intellectual conceptions, [130a] this same multifarious and perplexing entanglement which you described in visible objects.”

Pythodorus said that he thought at every word, while Socrates was saying this, Parmenides and Zeno would be angry, but they paid close attention to him and frequently looked at each other and smiled, as if in admiration of Socrates, and when he stopped speaking Parmenides expressed their approval. “Socrates,” [130b] he said, “what an admirable talent for argument you have! Tell me, did you invent this distinction yourself, which separates abstract ideas from the things which partake of them? And do you think there is such a thing as abstract likeness apart from the likeness which we possess, and abstract one and many, and the other abstractions of which you heard Zeno speaking just now?”

“Yes, I do,” said Socrates.

“And also,” said Parmenides, “abstract ideas of the just, the beautiful, the good, and all such conceptions?”

“Yes,” he replied. [130c] “And is there an abstract idea of man, apart from us and all others such as we are, or of fire or water?”

“I have often,” he replied, “been very much troubled, Parmenides, to decide whether there are ideas of such things, or not.”

“And are you undecided about certain other things, which you might think rather ridiculous, such as hair, mud, dirt, or anything else particularly vile and worthless? Would you say that there is an idea of each of these distinct and different from the things [130d] with which we have to do, or not?”

“By no means,” said Socrates. “No, I think these things are such as they appear to us, and it would be quite absurd to believe that there is an idea of them; and yet I am sometimes disturbed by the thought that perhaps what is true of one thing is true of all. Then when I have taken up this position, I run away for fear of falling into some abyss of nonsense and perishing; so when I come to those things which we were just saying do have ideas, I stay and busy myself with them.” [130e] “Yes, for you are still young,” said Parmenides, “and philosophy has not yet taken hold upon you, Socrates, as I think it will later. Then you will not despise them; but now you still consider people’s opinions, on account of your youth. Well, tell me do you think that, as you say, there are ideas, and that these other things which partake of them are named from them, [131a] as, for instance, those that partake of likeness become like, those that partake of greatness great, those that partake of beauty and justice just and beautiful?”

“Certainly,” said Socrates.

“Well then, does each participant object partake of the whole idea, or of a part of it? Or could there be some other third kind of participation?”

“How could there be?” said he.

“Do you think the whole idea, being one, is in each of the many participants, or what?”

“Yes, for what prevents it from being in them, Parmenides?” said Socrates. [131b] “Then while it is one and the same, the whole of it would be in many separate individuals at once, and thus it would itself be separate from itself.”

“No,” he replied, “for it might be like day, which is one and the same, is in many places at once, and yet is not separated from itself; so each idea, though one and the same, might be in all its participants at once.”

“That,” said he, “is very neat, Socrates you make one to be in many places at once, just as if you should spread a sail over many persons and then should say it was one and all of it was over many. [131c] Is not that about what you mean?”

“Perhaps it is,” said Socrates.

“Would the whole sail be over each person, or a particular part over each?”

“A part over each.”

“Then,” said he, “the ideas themselves, Socrates, are divisible into parts, and the objects which partake of them would partake of a part, and in each of them there would be not the whole, but only a part of each idea.”

“So it appears.”

“Are you, then, Socrates, willing to assert that the one idea is really divided and will still be one?”

“By no means,” he replied.

“No,” said Parmenides, “for if you divide absolute greatness, [131d] and each of the many great things is great by a part of greatness smaller than absolute greatness, is not that unreasonable?”

“Certainly,” he said.

“Or again, will anything by taking away a particular small part of equality possess something by means of which, when it is less than absolute equality, its possessor will be equal to anything else?”

“That is impossible.”

“Or let one of us have a part of the small; the small will be greater than this, since this is a part of it, and therefore the absolute small will be greater; but that to which the part of the small is added will be smaller, [131e] not greater, than before.”

“That,” said he, “is impossible.”

“How, then, Socrates, will other things partake of those ideas of yours, if they cannot partake of them either as parts or as wholes?”

“By Zeus,” he replied, “I think that is a very hard question to determine.”

“Well, what do you think of this?”

“Of what?” [132a] “I fancy your reason for believing that each idea is one is something like this; when there is a number of things which seem to you to be great, you may think, as you look at them all, that there is one and the same idea in them, and hence you think the great is one.”

“That is true,” he said.

“But if with your mind’s eye you regard the absolute great and these many great things in the same way, will not another great appear beyond, by which all these must appear to be great?”

“So it seems.”

“That is, another idea of greatness will appear, in addition to absolute greatness and the objects which partake of it; [132b] and another again in addition to these, by reason of which they are all great; and each of your ideas will no longer be one, but their number will be infinite.”

“But, Parmenides,” said Socrates, “each of these ideas may be only a thought, which can exist only in our minds then each might be one, without being exposed to the consequences you have just mentioned.”

“But,” he said, “is each thought one, but a thought of nothing?”

“That is impossible,” he replied.

“But of something?”

“Yes.” [132c] “Of something that is, or that is not?”

“Of something that is.”

“A thought of some single element which that thought thinks of as appertaining to all and as being one idea?”


“Then will not this single element, which is thought of as one and as always the same in all, be an idea?”

“That, again, seems inevitable.”

“Well then,” said Parmenides, “does not the necessity which compels you to say that all other things partake of ideas, oblige you also to believe either that everything is made of thoughts, and all things think, or that, being thoughts, they are without thought?”

“That is quite unreasonable, too,” he said, [132d] “but Parmenides, I think the most likely view is, that these ideas exist in nature as patterns, and the other things resemble them and are imitations of them; their participation in ideas is assimilation to them, that and nothing else.”

“Then if anything,” he said, “resembles the idea, can that idea avoid being like the thing which resembles it, in so far as the thing has been made to resemble it; or is there any possibility that the like be unlike its like?”

“No, there is none.”

“And must not necessarily the like partake of [132e] the same idea as its like?”

“It must.”

“That by participation in which like things are made like, will be the absolute idea, will it not?”


“Then it is impossible that anything be like the idea, or the idea like anything; for if they are alike, some further idea, in addition to the first, will always appear, and if that is like anything, still another, [133a] and a new idea will always be arising, if the idea is like that which partakes of it.”

“Very true.”

“Then it is not by likeness that other things partake of ideas we must seek some other method of participation.”

“So it seems.”

“Do you see, then, Socrates, how great the difficulty is, if we maintain that ideas are separate, independent entities?”

“Yes, certainly.”

“You may be sure,” he said, “that you do not yet, if I may say so, [133b] grasp the greatness of the difficulty involved in your assumption that each idea is one and is something distinct from concrete things.”

“How is that?” said he.

“There are many reasons,” he said, “but the greatest is this; if anyone should say that the ideas cannot even be known if they are such as we say they must be, no one could prove to him that he was wrong, unless he who argued that they could be known were a man of wide education and ability and were willing to follow the proof through many long and elaborate details; [133c] he who maintains that they cannot be known would be unconvinced.”

“Why is that, Parmenides?” said Socrates.

“Because, Socrates, I think that you or anyone else who claims that there is an absolute idea of each thing would agree in the first place that none of them exists in us.”

“No, for if it did, it would no longer be absolute,” said Socrates.

“You are right,” he said. “Then those absolute ideas which are relative to one another have their own nature in relation to themselves, and not in relation to the likenesses, [133d] or whatever we choose to call them, which are amongst us, and from which we receive certain names as we participate in them. And these concrete things, which have the same names with the ideas, are likewise relative only to themselves, not to the ideas, and, belong to themselves, not to the like-named ideas.”

“What do you mean?” said Socrates.

“For instance,” said Parmenides, “if one of us is master or slave of anyone, he is not the slave of master in the abstract, [133e] nor is the master the master of slave in the abstract; each is a man and is master or slave of a man but mastership in the abstract is mastership of slavery in the abstract, and likewise slavery in the abstract is slavery to mastership in the abstract, but our slaves and masters are not relative to them, nor they to us; [134a] they, as I say, belong to themselves and are relative to themselves and likewise our slaves and masters are relative to themselves. You understand what I mean, do you not?”

“Certainly,” said Socrates, “I understand.”

“Then knowledge also, if abstract or absolute, would be knowledge of abstract or absolute truth?”


“And likewise each kind of absolute knowledge would be knowledge of each kind of absolute being, would it not?”


“And would not the knowledge that exists among us be the knowledge of the truth that exists among us, and each kind of our knowledge [134b] be the knowledge of each kind of truth that exists among us?”

“Yes, that is inevitable.”

“But the ideas themselves, as you, agree, we have not, neither can they be among us.”

“No, they cannot.”

“And the various classes of ideas are known by the absolute idea of knowledge?”


“Which we do not possess.”

“No, we do not.”

“Then none of the ideas is known by us, since we do not partake of absolute knowledge.”

“Apparently not.”

“Then the absolute good and the beautiful and all [134c] which we conceive to be absolute ideas are unknown to us.”

“I am afraid they are.”

“Now we come to a still more fearful consequence.”

“What is it?”

“You would say, no doubt, that if there is an absolute kind of knowledge, it is far more accurate than our knowledge, and the same of beauty and all the rest?”


“And if anything partakes of absolute knowledge, you would say that there is no one more likely than God to possess this most accurate knowledge?”

“Of course.” [134d] “Then will it be possible for God to know human things, if he has absolute knowledge?”

“Why not?”

“Because,” said Parmenides, “we have agreed that those ideas are not relative to our world, nor our world to them, but each only to themselves.”

“Yes, we have agreed to that.”

“Then if this most perfect mastership and this most accurate knowledge are with God, his mastership can never rule us, [134e] nor his knowledge know us or anything of our world; we do not rule the gods with our authority, nor do we know anything of the divine with our knowledge, and by the same reasoning, they likewise, being gods, are not our masters and have no knowledge of human affairs.”

“But surely this,” said he, “is a most amazing argument, if it makes us deprive God of knowledge.”

“And yet, Socrates,” said Parmenides, [135a] “these difficulties and many more besides are inseparable from the ideas, if these ideas of things exist and we declare that each of them is an absolute idea. Therefore he who hears such assertions is confused in his mind and argues that the ideas do not exist, and even if they do exist cannot by any possibility be known by man; and he thinks that what he says is reasonable, and, as I was saying just now, he is amazingly hard to convince. Only a man of very great natural gifts will be able to understand that everything has a class and absolute essence, [135b] and only a still more wonderful man can find out all these facts and teach anyone else to analyze them properly and understand them.”

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