Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus is considered one of the key works in the Western philosophical tradition dealing with epistemology, or how we know things. It was my introduction to the Platonic tradition, along with Republic, and – alas – in neither case was much of an impression, to use the Stoic term, made on my conscious mind at the age of nineteen. However, as readers will know, I firmly believe that great works of literature do leave their mark on our souls, whether we are aware or not at the time, leaving us better prepared to revisit them later in our lives.
I had completely forgotten, for example, how striking the opening to Theaetetus is. The setting is the city of Megara. Eucleides and Terpsion observe a young man, Theaetetus, being carried wounded, and suffering from dysentery, back from the ‘camp at Corinth.’ Our interest in this unfortunate young man is instantly engaged. And then, in flashback, to more peaceful times, Eucleides recalls Socrates telling him about discussions with Theaetetus, about which Eucleides took notes (hupomnēmata, 143a) over a period of time – and this recollection forms the dialogue as it proceeds.
Socrates is talking with his friend Theodorus the mathematician, and is told about a brilliant young student, Theaetetus. He even, Theodorus claims, looks like Socrates, with a snub nose and protruding eyes (143e)! The young man is mature for his years, with a steady approach to learning. As usual, it turns out that Socrates knows of the youth’s father, Euphronius of Sounion, who had a good reputation, and had left a fortune (which, Theodorus suggests, had been squandered by estate trustees, 144d). Theaetetus himself now arrives with friends.
After some preliminary chit-chat, Socrates probes Theaetetus about the nature of wisdom. Is it the same thing as knowledge (145d-e)? And is there one kind of knowledge, or are there several? Socrates uses the image of clay: there is potter’s clay and there is brickmaker’s clay, but listing them does not help us know what clay is. He concludes that ‘clay is earth mixed with moisture’ (147a-c). But Theaetetus protests:
‘It seems easy just now, Socrates, as you put it..” (147c)
He goes on to describe how recently, in Theodorus’s geometry class, the students had been working on squares and roots. They divided numbers into two classes: those formed by multiplying equal factors, which they called ‘square numbers,’ and those ‘such as three or five’ which can only be formed by multiplying unequal factors, they called ‘oblong numbers’ (147e-148a). But, Theaetetus frankly admits, he cannot see a way to classifying knowledge in a similar way. So had their teacher Theodorus led them astray? (148b)
Not at all, Socrates reassures him. The task of identifying knowledge is one for the very ablest people to consider (148c). Theaetetus counters that he has often tried to work out an answer, but has been unable even to meet with anyone who could help. He has an uneasy feeling about it.
‘You are suffering labour pains, dear Theaetetus, because you are not empty, but pregnant,’ announces Socrates surprisingly (148e).
What can he mean by this? Socrates goes on to explain that his mother Phaenarete was a midwife, and he had inherited her skills. The childless goddess Artemis is associated with the role of midwifery, assisting the mature women who in turn help younger women in giving birth, giving the correct drugs, or even inducing miscarriage (149b-d). Midwives also help women and men to come together in productive relationships. So how is Socrates like a midwife?
He explains that, just as the midwives are past childbearing themselves, he too brings forth no wisdom from himself (150c). But he plays a role in helping men bring forth wisdom in their turn, and several gain a good reputation for their achievements. Some give up his course of assistance too early, and have ‘miscarried’ or come to some difficulty (150e). Others leave and then wish to return, and sometimes Socrates’s daimonion, his spirit guide, instructs him to turn them away (151a). Still others Socrates believes would be better to be ‘match-made’ with another teacher, such as the sophist Prodicus (151b).
Theaetetus, he believes, is pregnant with some important thoughts.
‘Apply, then, to me, remembering that I am the son of a midwife and have myself a midwife’s gifts, and do your best to answer the questions I ask as I ask them. And if, when I have examined any of the things you say, it should prove that I think it is a mere image and not real, and therefore quietly take it from you and throw it away, do not be angry as women are when they are deprived of their first offspring. For many, my dear friend, before this have got into such a state of mind towards me that they are actually ready to bite me, if I take some foolish notion away from them, and they do not believe that I do this in kindness, since they are far from knowing that no god is unkind to mortals, and that I do nothing of this sort from unkindness, either, and that it is quite out of the question for me to allow an imposture or to destroy the true. And so, Theaetetus, begin again and try to tell us what knowledge is. And never say that you are unable to do so; for if God wills it and gives you courage, you will be able.’ (151c-d)
What an extraordinary passage from Socrates! But Plato is quite clear about this; we also see it in Diotima’s speech in Symposium: creative or intellectual effort is like being pregnant and giving birth. And the metaphor has a lot of value. After all, producing a child and completing a creative work are similar in the sense that they both involve a lot of effort; we feel protective of both; we are vulnerable in respect of both. They both include a lot of ourselves in them. Underlining this parallel, in 1811 Jane Austen wrote while drafting her first published novel that she could:
‘no more forget [it] than a mother can forget her sucking child.’
We feel that Theaetetus is being invited to a momentous task – analogous to the serious (and, as it was particularly in those times, dangerous) business of giving birth.