The relationship between teacher and student can take many forms. Modern educational approaches value the teacher insofar as he imparts information to the pupil. But traditional education is more akin to soul-nurturing. In the Theaetetus, Theaetetus is praised by his teacher Theodorus as a star pupil, but what we quickly discover is that Theaetetus lacks the courage and confidence necessary for learning, at least at this point. His soul has been lulled to sleep by Theodorus, a geometer of no little skill, but also a man lacking in wisdom. Theaetetus is caught in his shadow: he is a “yes-man” of the worst sort, totally dependant upon Theodorus and Socrates to do the real thinking for him.

Even worse, Theodorus seems to continue to be the “gate-keeper” for Theaetetus. He remains with Theaetetus throughout the dialogue, repeatedly pushing Theaetetus into conversation with Socrates and potentially hindering Theaetetus’ development. They seem to intentionally avoid discussing whether knowledge and wisdom are the same thing, possibly to preserve Theodorus from the shame of being exposed as a knowledgable, foolish man. Theaetetus must go beyond his former master, but do so while Theodorus is present.
The dialogue is an appropriately terrifying reminder of the great power educators have over their students. We hold their souls in our hands, and it is ours to wake them up and help them to see, or to let them lie in their slumber. The charge for the educator is that we must become the sort of people that we wish to create, as we can not produce anything other than we are.

Theodorus’ has been educated by a bad man and stands in need of redemption (to use Brian’s fine phrase). Will Socrates be able to help him, or will his relationship with Theodorus prevent him from learning? This is the drama of education, and of the Theaetetus.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Great thoughts, Matt.

    The Christian Socratic educator is in a different position than Socrates, however, and this different position raises important questions.

    For the Christian educator is motivated to lead his students in such a way that their inquiries do not lead them to reject the doctrines of the Faith. If Theodorus was the harmful mediator between Thaetetus and Socrates, are not the Church or Scipture or the Creeds the mediator between the student and his Socrates? Is this mediatory role ultimately at odds with a true Socratism?

    One might emphasize the harmony of faith and reason in rebuttal: Christian doctrine has nothing to fear from dialectical inquiry. But, as has been the position of most theologians, there are some doctrines that will forever elude the dialectician. How does the Christian Socratic educator present these aspects of the Faith to his students, on Socratic terms?

    Might we say that, qua chief interlocuter, the Christian socratist must take the risk of providing the conditions under which the student might “go astray”?

  • MatthewLee


    Great questions. I am sitting out tonight to finish grading, and consequently distracting myself by answering you.

    For the Christian educator is motivated to lead his students in such a way that their inquiries do not lead them to reject the doctrines of the Faith. If Theodorus was the harmful mediator between Thaetetus and Socrates, are not the Church or Scipture or the Creeds the mediator between the student and his Socrates? Is this mediatory role ultimately at odds with a true Socratism?

    I don’t think so. It seems rather that Theodorus is infantile even in his approach to learning. He is not a learner, and so incapable of producing learners. A Christian socratist might hold to the articles of the faith, but also be willing to revise them, and hence be able to instruct both dialectically and didactically.

    In other words, indoctrination of the articles of the faith are for small children, but when they become men, they must think like men. The Socratic endeavor doesn’t seem to be a rejection of articles of faith, but rather an acknowledgment of our limited understanding of those articles. Because of this it admits of both teaching the articles and questioning them. Questions, after all, are not necessarily objecctions or reasons to disbelieve. It depends more upon the manner of the questioning.

    So to your final point, I think that “taking the risk” is necessary, but understanding and modeling the life of fides quarens intellectum (it’s the only latin phrase I know, so I must use it when I can!) mitigates the risk, I think. The environment for learning is crucial–if done within the community of faith, then the inquiry can take the form of pursuing genuine understanding, rather than attempting to find reasons to leave the faith. And the difference reduces the risk, I think, allowing Christians to develop into men. Golly, I hope I’m being clear……

  • In an Oedipus Rex session my freshman year, we noted how discovering the truth seemed to ruin everything for the blind deposed king. Dr. Reynolds, in top form, gave us the following dilemma: If Sophocles is right, Jesus is wrong! The truth doesn’t set you free! Mind you, the dilemma was unleashed after trudging through the play together, feeling all of its force, letting ourselves come under its influence. Powerful stuff.

    Then Reason comes to the aid of bewildered student. Perhaps freedom isn’t used univocally by Jesus and Sophocles. Perhaps I have a bad idea of freedom, which senses conflict where there is none. Etc. etc. I am forced to start thinking about truth and its consequences, about the value of knowledge, about the nature of freedom. Of course Jesus is right. But maybe I haven’t yet understood him. This is one way in which the Christian socratist (in this case Reynolds) can “take the risk.”

    Now, matters are slightly different when it comes to what I will just call non-moral doctrines of the church, for instance, that three divine persons subsist in one divine essence. This has for the most part been taken to be unprovable. But I don’t think that holding to the doctrine is anti- or even non-Socratic in principle (though it can be). Here’s why: while I have no expectation that I’ll stumble across an argument that will logically convince me that the God is a Trinity, I do think it is more reasonable to believe that God exists than that he doesn’t and I believe that Jesus existed and that we have a pretty good record of the important things he said and did. The former I hold (if we table religious experience for the moment) on probabilistic grounds, and the latter on historical grounds. Neither of these are deductions, but deduction is not always what the reasonable man is after. But if Jesus is who he says he is, then he is God. But he prays to God, as though he’s not speaking to himself. Very curious. Then John comes along and gives the interpretation: in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God…All things were made through him and nothing was made that was not made through him. Wammo! Just a few more steps and we’re knocking on Nicaea’s door. The doctrine enshrined in the creeds is not directly approachable through the dialectic, but it seems a good case can be made that it can be indirectly approached, and therefore that it can be in accord with the examined life so to hold it. But the important thing is (for those who can) to go through the examination.

    But if the Christian socratist can hold to the doctrines of the faith in a quasi-dialectical way, then it seems there is no barrier in principle between an authentic socratism and an orthodox faith. Applying this to the praxis of teaching, the teacher needn’t be defensive about his faith, and therefore has a certain “freedom” to express vexing ideas and allow others to express them as well. If a student is “going astray” in a classroom setting, what is the teacher’s role? Not, I think, to remind them that they are Christian after all and Christians aren’t allowed to hold such positions. Rather, I think, to Socratize their little minds in such a way that they come to see why they should abandon the bad idea.

    But this abandonment of an idea, without the corresponding willingness to embrace the “good idea”, may itself be more painful and soul-disrupting (in the short term) than the bad idea. So this is another risk the teacher must take, I suppose, that students may go through periods of intellectual and spiritual darkness, and for God’s sake the teacher must not interfere, except to continue modelling a theologically and intellectually virtuous life. To play youth pastor and give them the right answer, to assure them with customary words that everything will be fine and there’s nothing to worry about, is to assume that Athenian geometer’s mantle. As Matt has so eloquently expressed in three volumes, that is tragic.

  • dthompson

    I’m coming late to this party, but as a word conscious human being I’d like to propose that Matt amend his original post.

    “We hold their souls in our hands…”? Maybe I’m being a little nit-picky for a medium as temporal as internet blogs, but the word choice there strikes me as more than a little pompous. No doubt educators own a great responsibility, but come on, to have that the kind of power that holding a soul would suggest is surely something only the Lord can have.

    I’ll offer “The stuff we deal in are the souls of men…” as a hopefully more humble phrasing of what I think you’re saying here.