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Plato: Theaetetus (excerpts)

[148e] THEAETETUS: But I assure you, Socrates, I have often tried to work that out, when I heard reports of the questions that you asked, but I can neither persuade myself that I have any satisfactory answer, nor can I find anyone else who gives the kind of answer you insist upon; and yet, on the other hand, I cannot get rid of a feeling of concern about the matter.

SOCRATES: Yes, you are suffering the pangs of labor, Theaetetus, because you are not empty, but pregnant.

THEAETETUS: I do not know, Socrates; I merely tell you what I feel.

[149a] SOCRATES: Have you then not heard, you absurd boy, that I am the son of a noble and burly midwife, Phaenarete?

THEAETETUS: Yes, I have heard that.

SOCRATES: And have you also heard that I practise the same art?

THEAETETUS: No, never.

SOCRATES: But I assure you it is true; only do not tell on me to the others; for it is not known that I possess this art. But other people, since they do not know it, do not say this of me, but say that I am a most eccentric person and drive men to distraction. Have you heard that also?

[149b] THEAETETUS: Yes, I have.

SOCRATES: Shall I tell you the reason then?

THEAETETUS: Oh yes, do.

SOCRATES: Just take into consideration the whole business of the midwives, and you will understand more easily what I mean. For you know, I suppose, that no one of them attends other women while she is still capable of conceiving and bearing but only those do so who have become too old to bear.

THEAETETUS: Yes, certainly.

SOCRATES: They say the cause of this is Artemis, because she, a childless goddess, has had childbirth allotted to her as her special province. Now it would seem she did not allow [149c] barren women to be midwives, because human nature is too weak to acquire an art which deals with matters of which it has no experience, but she gave the office to those who on account of age were not bearing children, honoring them for their likeness to herself.

THEAETETUS: Very likely.

SOCRATES: Is it not, then, also likely and even necessary, that midwives should know better than anyone else who are pregnant and who are not?

THEAETETUS: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And furthermore, the midwives, by means of drugs [149d] and incantations, are able to arouse the pangs of labor and, if they wish, to make them milder, and to cause those to bear who have difficulty in bearing; and they cause miscarriages if they think them desirable.

THEAETETUS: That is true.

SOCRATES: Well, have you noticed this also about them, that they are the most skillful of matchmakers, since they are very wise in knowing what union of man and woman will produce the best possible children?

THEAETETUS: I do not know that at all.

SOCRATES: But be assured that they are prouder of this [149e] than of their skill in cutting the umbilical cord. Just consider. Do you think the knowledge of what soil is best for each plant or seed belongs to the same art as the tending and harvesting of the fruits of the earth, or to another?

THEAETETUS: To the same art.

SOCRATES: And in the case of a woman, do you think, my friend, that there is one art for the sowing and another for the harvesting?

THEAETETUS: It is not likely.

[150a] SOCRATES: No; but because there is a wrongful and unscientific way of bringing men and women together, which is called pandering, the midwives, since they are women of dignity and worth, avoid matchmaking, through fear of falling under the charge of pandering. And yet the true midwife is the only proper match-maker.

THEAETETUS: It seems so.

SOCRATES: So great, then, is the importance of midwives; but their function is less important than mine. For women do not, like my patients, bring forth [150b] at one time real children and at another mere images which it is difficult to distinguish from the real. For if they did, the greatest and noblest part of the work of the midwives would be in distinguishing between the real and the false. Do you not think so?


SOCRATES: All that is true of their art of midwifery is true also of mine, but mine differs from theirs in being practised upon men, not women, and in tending their souls in labor, not their bodies. But the greatest thing about my art is this, [150c] that it can test in every way whether the mind of the young man is bringing forth a mere image, an imposture, or a real and genuine offspring. For I have this in common with the midwives: I am sterile in point of wisdom, and the reproach which has often been brought against me, that I question others but make no reply myself about anything, because I have no wisdom in me, is a true reproach; and the reason of it is this: the god compels me to act as midwife, but has never allowed me to bring forth. I am, then, not at all a wise person myself, [150d] nor have I any wise invention, the offspring born of my own soul; but those who associate with me, although at first some of them seem very ignorant, yet, as our acquaintance advances, all of them to whom the god is gracious make wonderful progress, not only in their own opinion, but in that of others as well. And it is clear that they do this, not because they have ever learned anything from me, but because they have found in themselves many fair things and have brought them forth. But the delivery is due to the god and me. And the proof of it is this: many before now, [150e] being ignorant of this fact and thinking that they were themselves the cause of their success, but despising me, have gone away from me sooner than they ought, whether of their own accord or because others persuaded them to do so. Then, after they have gone away, they have miscarried thenceforth on account of evil companionship, and the offspring which they had brought forth through my assistance they have reared so badly that they have lost it; they have considered impostures and images of more importance than the truth, and at last it was evident to themselves, as well as to others, that they were ignorant. One of these was[151a] Aristeides, the son of Lysimachus, and there are very many more. When such men come back and beg me, as they do, with wonderful eagerness to let them join me again, the spiritual monitor that comes to me forbids me to associate with some of them, but allows me to converse with others, and these again make progress. Now those who associate with me are in this matter also like women in childbirth; they are in pain and are full of trouble night and day, much more than are the women; and my art can arouse this pain and cause it to cease. Well, that is what happens to them. [151b] But in some cases, Theaetetus, when they do not seem to me to be exactly pregnant, since I see that they have no need of me, I act with perfect goodwill as match-maker and, under God, I guess very successfully with whom they can associate profitably, and I have handed over many of them to Prodicus, and many to other wise and inspired men. Now I have said all this to you at such length, my dear boy, because I suspect that you, as you yourself believe, are in pain because you are pregnant with something within you. Apply, then, to me, remembering that I am the son of a midwife [151c] 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, [151d] 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.

THEAETETUS: Well then, Socrates, since you are so urgent it would be disgraceful for anyone not to exert himself in every way [151e] to say what he can. I think, then, that he who knows anything perceives that which he knows, and, as it appears at present, knowledge is nothing else than perception.

SOCRATES: Good! Excellent, my boy! That is the way one ought to speak out. But come now, let us examine your utterance together, and see whether it is a real offspring or a mere wind-egg. Perception, you say, is knowledge?


SOCRATES: And, indeed, if I may venture to say so, it is not a bad description of knowledge [152a] that you have given, but one which Protagoras also used to give. Only, he has said the same thing in a different way. For he says somewhere that man is "the measure of all things, of the existence of the things that are and the non-existence of the things that are not." You have read that, I suppose?

THEAETETUS: Yes, I have read it often.

SOCRATES: Well, is not this about what he means, that individual things are for me such as they appear to me, and for you in turn such as they appear to you -- you and I being "man"?

THEAETETUS: Yes, that is what he says.

[152b] SOCRATES: It is likely that a wise man is not talking nonsense; so let us follow after him. Is it not true that sometimes, when the same wind blows, one of us feels cold, and the other does not? or one feels slightly and the other exceedingly cold?

THEAETETUS: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Then in that case, shall we say that the wind is in itself cold or not cold or shall we accept Protagoras's saying that it is cold for him who feels cold and not for him who does not?

THEAETETUS: Apparently we shall accept that.

SOCRATES: Then it also seems cold, or not, to each of the two?


SOCRATES: But "seems" denotes perceiving?


[152c] SOCRATES: Then seeming and perception are the same thing in matters of warmth and everything of that sort. For as each person perceives things, such they are to each person.

THEAETETUS: Apparently.

SOCRATES: Perception, then, is always of that which exists and, since it is knowledge, cannot be false.

THEAETETUS: So it seems.

[161b] SOCRATES: Do you know, then, Theodorus, what amazes me in your friend Protagoras?

[161c] THEODORUS: What is it?

SOCRATES: In general I like his doctrine that what appears to each one is to him, but I am amazed by the beginning of his book. I don't see why he does not say in the beginning of his Truth that a pig or a dog-faced baboon or some still stranger creature of those that have sensations is the measure of all things. Then he might have begun to speak to us very imposingly and condescendingly, showing that while we were honoring him like a god for his wisdom, he was after all no better in intellect than any other man, [161d] or, for that matter, than a tadpole. What alternative is there, Theodorus? For if that opinion is true to each person which he acquires through sensation, and no one man can discern another's condition better than he himself, and one man has no better right to investigate whether another's opinion is true or false than he himself, but, as we have said several times, each man is to form his own opinions by himself, and these opinions are always right and true, why in the world, my friend, was Protagoras wise, so that he could rightly be thought worthy [161e] to be the teacher of other men and to be well paid, and why were we ignorant creatures and obliged to go to school to him, if each person is the measure of his own wisdom? Must we not believe that Protagoras was "playing to the gallery" in saying this? I say nothing of the ridicule that I and my science of midwifery deserve in that case, -- and, I should say, the whole practice of dialectics, too. For would not the investigation of one another's fancies and opinions, and the attempt to refute them, when each man's must be right, be tedious[162a] and blatant folly, if the Truth of Protagoras is true and he was not jesting when he uttered his oracles from the shrine of his book?

[169d] SOCRATES: Let us, therefore, first take up the same question as before, and let us see whether we were right or wrong in being displeased and finding fault with the doctrine because it made each individual self-sufficient in wisdom. Protagoras granted that some persons excelled others in respect to the better and the worse, and these he said were wise, did he not?


SOCRATES: Now if he himself were present and could agree to this, instead of[169e] our making the concession for him in our effort to help him, there would be no need of taking up the question again or of reinforcing his argument. But, as it is, perhaps it might be said that we have no authority to make the agreement for him; therefore it is better to make the agreement still clearer on this particular point; for it makes a good deal of difference whether it is so or not.

THEODORUS: That is true.

SOCRATES: Let us then get the agreement in as concise a form as possible, not through others, [170a] but from his own statement.


SOCRATES: In this way: He says, does he not? "that which appears to each person really is to him to whom it appears."

THEODORUS: Yes, that is what he says.

SOCRATES: Well then, Protagoras, we also utter the opinions of a man, or rather, of all men, and we say that there is no one who does not think himself wiser than others in some respects and others wiser than himself in other respects; for instance, in times of greatest danger, when people are distressed in war or by diseases or at sea, they regard their commanders as gods and expect them to be their saviors, [170b] though they excel them in nothing except knowledge. And all the world of men is, I dare say, full of people seeking teachers and rulers for themselves and the animals and for human activities, and, on the other hand, of people who consider themselves qualified to teach and qualified to rule. And in all these instances we must say that men themselves believe that wisdom and ignorance exist in the world of men, must we not?

THEODORUS: Yes, we must.

SOCRATES: And therefore they think that wisdom is true thinking and ignorance false opinion, do they not?

[170c] THEODORUS: Of course.

SOCRATES: Well then, Protagoras, what shall we do about the doctrine? Shall we say that the opinions which men have are always true, or sometimes true and sometimes false? For the result of either statement is that their opinions are not always true, but may be either true or false. Just think, Theodorus, would any follower of Protagoras, or you yourself care to contend that no person thinks that another is ignorant and has false opinions?

THEODORUS: No, that is incredible, Socrates.

[170d] SOCRATES: And yet this is the predicament to which the doctrine that man is the measure of all things inevitably leads.


SOCRATES: When you have come to a decision in your own mind about something, and declare your opinion to me, this opinion is, according to his doctrine, true to you; let us grant that; but may not the rest of us sit in judgement on your decision, or do we always judge that your opinion is true? Do not myriads of men on each occasion oppose their opinions to yours, believing that your judgement and belief are false?

[170e] THEODORUS: Yes, by Zeus, Socrates, countless myriads in truth, as Homer says, and they give me all the trouble in the world.

SOCRATES: Well then, shall we say that in such a case your opinion is true to you but false to the myriads?

THEODORUS: That seems to be the inevitable deduction.

SOCRATES: And what of Protagoras himself? If neither he himself thought, nor people in general think, as indeed they do not, that man is the measure of all things, is it not inevitable that the "truth" which he wrote is true to no one? But if he himself thought it was true, [171a] and people in general do not agree with him, in the first place you know that it is just so much more false than true as the number of those who do not believe it is greater than the number of those who do.

THEODORUS: Necessarily, if it is to be true or false according to each individual opinion.

SOCRATES: Secondly, it involves this, which is a very pretty result; he concedes about his own opinion the truth of the opinion of those who disagree with him and think that his opinion is false, since he grants that the opinions of all men are true.

THEODORUS: Certainly.

[171b] SOCRATES: Then would he not be conceding that his own opinion is false, if he grants that the opinion of those who think he is in error is true?

THEODORUS: Necessarily.

SOCRATES: But the others do not concede that they are in error, do they?

THEODORUS: No, they do not.

SOCRATES: And he, in turn, according to his writings, grants that this opinion also is true.

THEODORUS: Evidently.

SOCRATES: Then all men, beginning with Protagoras, will dispute -- or rather, he will grant, after he once concedes that the opinion of the man who holds the opposite view is true -- even Protagoras himself, I say, [171c] will concede that neither a dog nor any casual man is a measure of anything whatsoever that he has not learned. Is not that the case?


SOCRATES: Then since the "truth" of Protagoras is disputed by all, it would be true to nobody, neither to anyone else nor to him.

THEODORUS: I think, Socrates, we are running my friend too hard.

SOCRATES: But, my dear man, I do not see that we are running beyond what is right. Most likely, though, he, being older, [171d] is wiser than we, and if, for example, he should emerge from the ground, here at our feet, if only as far as the neck, he would prove abundantly that I was making a fool of myself by my talk, in all probability, and you by agreeing with me; then he would sink down and be off at a run. But we, I suppose, must depend on ourselves, such as we are, and must say just what we think. And so now must we not say that everybody would agree that some men are wiser and some more ignorant than others?

THEODORUS: Yes, I think at least we must.

SOCRATES: And do you think his doctrine might stand most firmly in the form in which we sketched it when defending Protagoras, [171e] that most things -- hot, dry, sweet, and everything of that sort -- are to each person as they appear to him, and if Protagoras is to concede that there are cases in which one person excels another, he might be willing to say that in matters of health and disease not every woman or child -- or beast, for that matter -- knows what is wholesome for it and is able to cure itself, but in this point, if in any, one person excels another?

THEODORUS: Yes, I think that is correct.

[172a] SOCRATES: And likewise in affairs of state, the honorable and disgraceful, the just and unjust, the pious and its opposite, are in truth to each state such as it thinks they are and as it enacts into law for itself, and in these matters no citizen and no state is wiser than another; but in making laws that are advantageous to the state, or the reverse, Protagoras again will agree that one counsellor is better than another, and the opinion of one state better than that of another as regards the truth, [172b] and he would by no means dare to affirm that whatsoever laws a state makes in the belief that they will be advantageous to itself are perfectly sure to prove advantageous. But in the other class of things -- I mean just and unjust, pious and impious -- they are willing to say with confidence that no one of them possesses by nature an existence of its own; on the contrary, that the common opinion becomes true at the time when it is adopted and remains true as long as it is held; this is substantially the theory of those who do not altogether affirm the doctrine of Protagoras.

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