Why Volumes? I have no idea. It just seemed right.

I missed last night’s session due to grading, but these are a few thoughts from tonight.

Socrates’ relationship to Theaetetus is as a midwife to a person in labor, or so the famous analogy goes. It is curious, though, that rather than only asking questions to bring Theaetetus’ ideas to birth, Socrates gives Theaetetus a long exhortation that is more sermon than question. It is as if Socrates is inducing labor in Theaetetus through his sermon, as he says in 149D: “And what’s more, the midwives by giving drugs and signing incantations are capable of arousing labor pains…” If there is no room for articles of faith in purely Socratic education, there is room for rhetorical challenges to pursue knowledge. The ruse works, as Theaetetus finally accepts the task of saying what knowledge is. He is en-couraged. Socrates has “manned” him with his words.

Unfortunately, Theaetetus’ definition is not very sound. He derives it from Protagoras, and it is essentially a post-modern approach to knowledge: knowledge is simply perception. As the dialectic unfolds, Theaetetus (and by extension, Protagoras!) is trapped in an obvious contradiction, recognizes it, but to escape it affirms the ridiculous (154D). The rebuke from Socrates is swift. The scene is troubling. Theaetetus’ claim that “it’s shameful not in every way to be eager to say whatever one has,” which he had uttered just after Socrates’ incantation, is forgotten when Theaetetus realizes that what he said was nonsensical. Why? It’s quite possible that Theaetetus is not willing to break ranks with Protagoras, a man of no little distinction. For the young learner, association with “the right people” is more valuable than actually understanding the truth.
The lessons are many: one, “waking students up” to the dialectic can be done through exhortation and incantation. Rhetoric is a useful tool for education, but obviously not sufficient, as Theaetetus reverts to his old ways very quickly. Though Socrates proclaims no ‘article of the faith’ to Theaetetus, he does move the learning process along through a long exhortation that is centered around Socrates’ role as midwife. (150C-151). Additionally, learning sometimes demands departing from those who taught us, particularly if they taught us badly. It is no easy task, especially for young people who may still be very much attached.

Theaetetus’ demonstrates an “a-rational” attachment to his ideas, an attachment grounded more in his affective state than in his perception of the truth. Overcoming these affective roadblocks is difficult, but necessary. It will be interesting to see whether Theaetetus becomes the sort of man who is able to become the sort of learner Socrates thinks he might be.

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.