how do these erstwhile mortals acquire ...?

Fictional

Senior Member
India - Hindi
Hello everyone!

I'm reading Doctors by Erich Segal these days and there's this sentence that I came across but am unable to figure out its meaning.

But this is cynical as well as incorrect. The true essence of modern medical philosophy, ignored only be a few altruistic renegades, is the doctor must never admit that he is wrong. But how do these erstwhile mortals acquire their infallibility?

What is the meaning of the sentence that I have underlined? Also, what does erstwhile in this context mean?
 
  • PaulQ

    Banned
    UK
    English - England
    "But how do these erstwhile mortals acquire their infallibility?" is said with intense irony. You will notice that, in the previous sentence, the author has suggested that "The true essence of modern medical philosophy [...] is the doctor must never admit that he is wrong." This indicates that these doctors are never wrong.

    "Never being wrong" is usually the province of gods. Gods are immortal. Doctors, in earlier times (the author implies), did admit that they were wrong and were therefore mortal. However, today, they have claimed the status of gods -> they are immortal.

    Erstwhile has its normal meaning.
     

    exgerman

    Senior Member
    NYC
    English but my first language was German
    But how do these erstwhile mortals acquire their infallibility? means how do these modern doctors (who were once human) achieve their "never being wrong" status? No irony, just a bit of rhetorical posturing.

    PaulQ 's explanation (doctors in former times were mortal men, but modern doctors are infallible immortals) is a possible, but I think less likely, reading of the sentence. It drags in the doctors of former times, who are really irrelevant to the discussion.
     

    PaulQ

    Banned
    UK
    English - England
    PaulQ 's explanation (doctors in former times were mortal men, but modern doctors are infallible immortals) is a possible, but I think less likely, reading of the sentence. It drags in the doctors of former times, who are really irrelevant to the discussion.
    I don't think that I said that "(doctors in former times were mortal men, but modern doctors are infallible immortals)" but that the writer implies they think of themselves in that way.

    I think "modern medical philosophy" is significant and I suggest, relevant. It seems to contrast with an "older, better time." If the writer is using "erstwhile mortal" then he must imply "immortal." (also for the contrast.) The only immortal things are gods. Indeed it is about this god-like status that the writer seems to be complaining, or at least drawing attention to it.
     

    Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    I suppose it depends on what you mean by 'irony', but I agree with PaulQ that the reference to modern doctors who never admit they are wrong is ironic.

    In the preceding sentence, the author excludes from this group "altruistic renegades" --- a positive reference to doctors who do not claim immortal infallibility. He also says that the doctors never admit they are wrong --- which implies that they are in fact sometimes wrong, but refuse to acknowledge that fact. It is clear that in the author's eyes, the doctors are far from infallible, despite their pose. For that reason, I consider his use of 'infallible' ironic.
     
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