and Virtue in Plato's Theaetetus: Part One
Gordon L. Ziniewicz
1. When reading the Theaetetus, one
should keep in mind the fact of Socrates' trial and death and
the fact of Socrates' activity as midwife and physician of the
soul. Plato intends that the arguments of the Theaetetus
be understood in the context of Socrates' mission to educate his
fellow Athenians even to the last days of his life. The Socrates
of the Theaetetus is, in many important ways, still the
Socrates of the Apology -- a therapist of souls and a purger
of false opinions, who knows that he does not know and learns
by helping other people to see for themselves. From an epistemological
point of view, the Theaetetus seems inconclusive; the dialogue
is aporetic and the character Socrates is engaging in negative
dialectic. But more is at stake in the Theaetetus than
epistemology; there is an undeniable ethical drama taking place.
Socrates is faced with death, and his companions are faced with
confusion about priorities.
2. Early in the dialogue, an important Platonic theme is revisited:
the difference between the expert (who knows what is meant by
genuine measure and proportion) and the pseudo-expert (who thinks
himself a measure). Talking about experts makes sense in a discussion
with Pythagoreans who could be expected to agree that there are
experts in the mathematical disciplines of arithmetic, geometry,
astronomy, and music (harmony). Socrates vouches for Theodorus'
expertise as "an astronomer and calculator and musician, and in
general an educated man."(145a) Of course, one might ask whether
Theodorus' sense of proportion or grasp of mathematical symmetry
qualifies him to judge proportion or lack of proportion (and harmony)
in the human soul. Theodorus knows mathematical forms, but does
he know the form of justice and whether it is reflected in the
human soul? Is the mathematician qualified to measure souls? The
question is one of expertise in "virtue or wisdom."(145b) How
close is Pythagorean mathematics or even Theaetetus' mathematics
(which apparently advanced beyond Pythagorean formulations to
an investigation of the universal foundations of mathematics)
to philosophical wisdom (that grounds both mathematics and just
action in the human city)?
3. The young Theaetetus will have to undergo questioning by
Socrates in order to see the noetic implications of his own mathematical
discoveries, which advance beyond Pythagorean learning. Conversation
with Theaetetus and Theodorus may very well show that the mathematician
is more capable than the pragmatic politician in judging human
souls. After all, Theodorus (despite certain Protagorean prejudices)
is more right than wrong about both Theaetetus and Socrates, whereas
the Athenian "judges" who misjudged Socrates were more wrong than
right. Socrates himself, though not claiming to be an expert or
"measure" in view of his own wise ignorance, nevertheless does
claim to be skillful (sophos) in determining worthwhile
from worthless thoughts. Socrates, the barren midwife of other
people's insights, knows the difference between insight and mere
opinion. He is expert at judging ideas which he can not himself
4. Overall, the dialogue aims at a number of transformations:
the transformation of Pythagorean into Theaetetan mathematics;
the relocation of a theory of sensation within its proper bounds,
over against an implied but not yet developed deepened theory
of forms; and, most important, the conversion through negative
dialectic of the souls of Theodorus and Theaetetus, so that they
may no longer merely seem, but be, harmonious and in agreement
with themselves. According to Plato (See Gorgias 507 -
508), one must be on friendly terms with oneself in order to be
on friendly terms with another or with wisdom.
5. We hear high praise of Theaetetus, who is to distinguish
himself not only in mathematics, but also in war and in conversation
with Socrates (which is often similar to war). Theaetetus is lauded
as the ideal philosophical candidate, with the "right stuff" indicated
by Socrates in the Republic. Theodorus introduces Theaetetus
to Socrates, as geometry (in the Platonic sense) introduces the
soul to dialectic. But the geometry of Theaetetus is not yet ready
for Platonic dialectic. Pythagorean mathematics is still too tied
to sense-perception. Mathematics itself must cross the divided
line between opinion and knowledge before it can lead the way
to dialectic. Mathematics must understand itself as knowledge
of forms and not merely as construction of images.
6. But there is a further difficulty. Socrates claims that
a midwife, who can tell a good result from a bad one, is also
a competent matchmaker. Socrates knows what "marriages" of men
and ideas are most likely to lead to insights. Socrates knows
how to match up teachers and learners. The irony is that Theodorus
has matched up Theaetetus with Socrates, not because he is an
expert at such matches, but because, on this occasion at least,
he happens to be right (right opinion). Theodorus does not judge
either Socrates or Theaetetus perfectly (that would require a
vision of the good), but his opinion is right. Yet Theodorus has
in the past mis-matched Theaetetus with Protagoras. Geometry and
Protagoras are not harmonious in Theaetetus' soul. Theodorus himself,
who claims to be too old for dialectical reform and does not grasp
the noetic foundations of geometry, does not see the contradiction
between Protagorean relativism and Pythagorean mathematics. But
Theaetetus feels and is bothered by this contradiction.
That is the point of Theaetetus' unease and perplexity; he is
uneasy about the relation between form and flux in his own soul.
7. Theodorus sees what Theaetetus and Socrates have in common
(their snub-nosed appearance and predisposition to inquire), but
he does not see how they differ, a critical mistake if knowledge
means grasp of difference as well as identity (the common). The
difference - the chief difference at any rate - between Theaetetus
and Socrates is the hold that Protagorean and Cratylan relativism
have on Theaetetus. Theodorus, a good friend of Protagoras, fails
to see that the Theodorus and the Protagoras in Theaetetus cannot
be good friends. Protagorean relativism is subversive not only
of moral and political life, but also of geometry and other mathema.
Theodorus, a geometer, is a friend of Protagoras, who himself
is no friend of geometry, as evidenced in Protagoras' ironic and
laconic writing on "Truth" (which lacks seriousness). Socrates
knows that geometry has more in common with philosophical truth
than Protagorean "Truth." He knows that mathematical insights
have something in common with, though they differ from, philosophical
insights. Socrates, both educator and moral therapist, sees that
both Theodorus and Theaetetus must be cured of Protagoras before
they are ready for philosophy, that is if they are to make the
ascent from mathematical understanding to philosophical wisdom.
8. There is irony when Socrates asks whether "wisdom and knowledge
are the same."(145e) For knowledge and wisdom are not the same
thing. The Greek word sophos can mean skillful in any activity
or techne (know-how). It can even mean knowledge or expertise;
and that seems to be where Socrates is taking Theaetetus in the
argument. But wisdom can also mean human (as opposed to divine)
wisdom, the humility of "knowing that one does not know"
that makes a person ready to learn and that promotes the very
process of learning, as Socrates testifies in the Apology.
This "human" wisdom is the child of poverty and plenty
(see the Symposium). It means being on the right track
(a quality of disposition or attitude) without having arrived.
As a kind of moral transformation of one's attitude, it is different
from competence (even expertise) in a particular subject matter
(such as geometry). This sort of competence in a field seems to
be Theodorus' sole understanding of wisdom, and Theodorus will
need to be refuted in order to see that more is involved. Because
of his perplexity, Theaetetus seems more predisposed to such "treatment"
9. Theaetetus is like and unlike Socrates, but he is more
like Socrates than he is like Theodorus. His therapy (the positive
moral outcome of Socrates' negative dialectic) wii result in his
"becoming" even more like Socrates. The dialogue examines motion
and change in the context of living (and learning) souls that
are moving and changing. Theaetetus and Theodorus really learn
and really "become" better in relation to a Socrates who is comparatively
steady (like a navigator who steers a steady course by relying
upon the stable proportions of the heavens). Theaetetus will progress
to the point of sharing Socrates' wisdom, his wise ignorance.
In this sense, the Theaetetus dialogue, which fails to
define knowledge, succeeds in making Theaetetus wiser. In the
end, Theaetetus does not "know" more, but he knows better.
10. But the dialogue is to be a success in other ways as well.
Not only will Theaetetus' soul be harmonized and predisposed to
learning, but also certain Protagorean and Protagorean-like (in
other words, Platonic) views of perception will be put in their
proper place. A rather innovative view of sense-perception will
be saved by putting it in perspective, by limiting its scope.
Thus, we see in this dialogue both the measuring or staking out
of the proper domains of sensation and thought and the moral straightening
of the souls of Theaetetus and Theodorus.
11. In the Theaetetus, we see in concrete form the
methexis of particulars and universals. Knowledge and virtue are
not transcendent and apart from human affairs; they take place
in people, who steer (phronesis) by means of transcendent
standards of the true and the good. Socrates, unlike the pure
spectator of the digression (later in the dialogue) and unlike
the pragmatic "physician" of appearances - who makes those who
feel bad feel good - genuinely purges the souls of his "patients"
of the malady of bad ideas so that they will really, not apparently,
get well. At the same time, he is a "physician" of arguments,
purging them of words that do not belong and rearranging the words
that do belong.
12. What is at stake in the Theaetetus goes beyond
the abstract "staking out" of knowledge. There is an attempt to
clear up the sophistic haze - the smoke and the mirrors - that
obscures the ethics and politics of Athenian "legal eagles" who
are unable to rise above the swirl of subjective (private) and
immediate perception of expedient particulars (in which they have
a vested interest) to the higher atmosphere of insight into universal
and unchanging structures (such as justice). What is needed is
an ascent from the cave of picture-thinking and opinion-marketing.
The sophists and politicians are masters at manipulating images
below ground; but they know nothing of the intelligible world
above ground. Theodorus and Theaetetus need to do better; the
well-being of their souls depends upon the realization that morality
can be as stable as mathematics.
13. Though the discussion of doxa in the Theaetetus
"seems" to elevate opinion (judgment) above the "divided line"
drawn in the Republic, let us take the original divided
line as a measuring stick, nonetheless. We see, somewhat to our
disappointment, that the bulk of the argument takes place below
the line dividing opinion from knowledge. Theodorus and Theaetetus
must be coaxed to see above this line. They must be made to see
that sensation is sensation and that opinion is opinion. Neither
of these is knowledge. In order to reach this insight, they must
be able to see the implications of their own mathematical discoveries
- that geometric truths are not private understandings subject
to public debate, but universal conceptions valid for all. Theaetetus,
who suspects that not every man is an expert in geometry, must
be made to see that the science of politics (which looks to absolute
justice) is higher, not lower, than geometry and that the expert
in justice is not every man (who very well may be an "expert"
with regard to his feeling hot or cold). Justice is not a matter
of taste. The sight of concrete particulars is different in kind
from insight into eidetic universals. Geometry is the bridge between
these two levels. The right ordering (harmonizing) of Theaetetus'
soul (and the soul of the reader) depends upon his getting these
matters straight and learning to turn his gaze above, not below
geometry to find the form of justice. Thus the "delivery" and
refutation of Theaetetus' misconceptions amounts to a reorientation
and readjustment of Theaetetus' moral and epistemological priorities.
14. The argument as a whole must be viewed in the same way.
One must be very careful how one takes Plato's presentation of
antagonistic views. The theory of perception is a case in point.
Very often, what is incorrect or out of place in one wave of conversation,
can be redeemed if seen in a different context or under a different
light. As we see later, in the refutation of the third definition
of knowledge, a true account is not simply a collection of letters
or syllables. It is how they are put together, how they are arranged
that matters. Thus, Platonic arguments are constantly being rearranged,
often using the same parts or elements. In the Theaetetus,
many of the discarded building blocks are reusable, if one sees
them differently, as foundation stones. For Plato, knowledge is
never merely a matter of having forms (as birds in the aviary),
but of arranging them properly (weaving them correctly, as the
cosmos is well-woven). In the Theaetetus, some of the right
words are there, but they await better arrangement, as Theaetetus'
soul has many of the right ideas, but not in their proper places.
The pursuit of knowledge requires at the same time the attunement
(harmonizing) of the pursuing soul and the rearrangement of the
elements of discourse. Both "corrections" require the very knowledge
(of right order or arrangement) that they are pursuing. The standard
for rearranging souls and speeches is both within and beyond souls
15. In this light, a Protagorean-like formulation can be saved.
For example, there is a truth implied in the Protagorean image
of the sick man and the bitter taste. Seen as a metaphor, this
image teaches us that only the healthy (just) soul "perceives"
justice rightly. Just as there is an interdependence between perceiver
and percipient in perception, so there is a kind of higher correspondence
between the knower (as expert) and the known. The unhealthy (unjust)
soul does not see clearly. As Socrates makes clear in the Republic,
seeing higher forms requires turning one's whole soul toward the
good; in a sense, only the good can see the good. Thus, learning
is a process (motion) that works itself out as an adjustment between
soul and form. Knowledge arises in this "interaction." One could
even say that the meaning of a Platonic dialogue arises and changes
in accordance with the soul of the reader. Learning itself is
motion, flow, or flux. Theodorus says of Theaetetus, "he moves
surely and smoothly and successfully in the path of knowledge
and inquiry; and he is full of gentleness, flowing on silently
like a river of oil...." (144b) The result of the motion of learning
is the stasis of knowing.
16. By actively arranging and rearranging words and speeches,
one gradually perceives more clearly the principles of right arrangement.
It is never enough to merely "see" a form (in isolation). Insight
requires grasp of order and arrangement, or seeing forms in their
proper relation to one another. Complete wisdom (which Socrates
attributes to the god), would be nothing less than a vision of
all forms in their proper places, woven together (kosmos)
and oriented to the good. Human speeches and lives participate
in and approximate this arrangement.
17. The first part of the dialogue wrestles to overcome "knowledge
is sense-perception" and stays well below the line dividing opinion
and knowledge. The famous later "digression" interrupts the chain
of argument and seems to float in an almost Parmenidean ideality
far above the line dividing knowledge (of forms) and perception
(of particular things). Thus, the argument becomes caught between
Parmenideans and Heracliteans. The extreme opposition between
the "way of truth" and the "way of opinion" in the digression
might cure the malady of "knowledge is perception," but this treatment
has potential side-effects. One might mistakenly leap from the
frying pan of earth-bound pragmatic sensualism to the fire of
impractical bodiless intellectualism, a danger pointed out by
John Burnet in his Greek Philosophy (London: Macmillan
and Co., 1928, p. 235). Wisdom is neither sensation of particulars
nor mere thought of universals. The remainder of the dialogue
is given over to refutation of "knowledge as true opinion" and
"knowledge as true opinion with an account" (logos). One
should keep in mind that even these discussions do not rise above
the line between opinion and knowledge, although they are attempts
to move in that direction. Doxa, with or without logos,
is not dialectic.
Go to Part
Two of this essay.
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Copyright © 1997
- 2013 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
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