“Theaetetus” by Plato

The Origin of Knowledge and Error

When the wax in the soul of a man is deep and abundant and smooth and properly kneaded, the images that come through the perceptions are imprinted upon this heart of the soul; when this is the case, and in such men, the imprints, being clear and of sufficient depth, are also lasting. And men of this kind are in the first place quick to learn, and secondly they have retentive memories, and moreover they do not interchange the imprints of their perceptions, but they have true opinions. For the imprints are clear and have plenty of room, so that such men quickly assign them to their several moulds, which are called realities; and these men, then, are called wise.

Now when the heart of anyone is shaggy, or when it is unclean or of impure wax, or very soft or hard, those whose wax is soft are quick to learn, but forgetful, and those in whom it is hard are the reverse. But those in whom it is shaggy and rough and stony, infected with earth or dung which is mixed in it, receive indistinct imprints from the moulds. So also do those whose wax is hard; for the imprints lack depth. And imprints in soft wax are also indistinct, because they melt together and quickly become blurred; but if besides all this they are crowded upon one another through lack of room, in some mean little soul, they are still more indistinct. So all these men are likely to have false opinions.

Socrates the Midwife and Matchmaker

Artemis, a childless goddess, has had childbirth allotted to her as her special province. She did not allow 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.

My art of midwifery is in most respects like theirs; but differs, in that I attend men and not women; and look after their souls when they are in labour, and not after their bodies: and the triumph of my art is in thoroughly examining whether the thought which the mind of the young man brings forth is a false idol or a noble and true birth. And like the midwives, I am barren, and the reproach which is often made against me, that I ask questions of others and have not the wit to answer them myself, is very just–the reason is, that the god compels me to be a midwife, but does not allow me to bring forth. And therefore I am not at all a wise person myself, nor have I any wise invention, the offspring born of my own soul;

But those who converse with me profit.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. Dire are the pangs which my art is able to arouse and to allay in those who consort with me, just like the pangs of women in childbirth; night and day they are full of perplexity and travail which is even worse than that of the women.

And there are others, who come to me apparently having nothing in them; and as I know that they have no need of my art, I coax them into marrying some one, and by the grace of God I can generally tell who is likely to do them good. Many of them I have given away to Prodicus, and many to other inspired sages.”

[–Update in 2014 –]

Protagoras on Sense and the Sensible

Man is the measure of all things.

Everything is real motion and there is nothing besides this. There are two kinds of motion, each infinite in its manifestations, one has an active, the other a passive force. From the union and friction of these two are born offspring, infinite in number, but always twins, the object of sense and the sense which is always born and brought forth together with the object of sense. We give the senses names like these: sight and hearing and smell, and the sense of cold and of heat, and pleasures and pains and desires and fears and so forth. The class of objects of sense is akin to each of these.

When the eye and some appropriate object which approaches beget whiteness and the corresponding perception—which could never have been produced by either of them going to anything else—then, while sight from the eye and whiteness from that which helps to produce the color are moving from one to the other, the eye becomes full of sight and so begins at that moment to see, and becomes, certainly not sight, but a seeing eye, and the object which joined in begetting the color is filled with whiteness and becomes in its turn, not whiteness, but white, whether it be a stick or a stone, or whatever it be the hue of which is so colored.

It is impossible to form a firm conception of the active or the passive element as being anything separately; for there is no active element until there is a union with the passive element, nor is there a passive element until there is a union with the active; and that which unites with one thing is active and appears again as passive when it comes in contact with something else. Nothing exists as invariably one, itself by itself, but everything is always becoming in relation to something, and “being” should be altogether abolished. The active and the passive elements are or become, in relation to one another, but to nothing else, not even to themselves. They are bound to one another; if anything “is”, it is to or of or in relation to something, and similarly if it “becomes”; but it does not “become” absolutely.

The Difference between a Lawyer and a Philosopher

The latter always have leisure [and freedom], and they talk at their leisure in peace, taking up argument after argument; and they do not care at all whether their talk is long or short, if only they attain the truth. But the [lawyers] are always in a hurry—for the water flowing through the water-clock urges them on— and the other party in the suit stands over them exercising the law’s compulsion by reading the brief; and the contests never run an indefinite course, but are always directed to the point at issue. As a result of all this, the speakers become tense and shrewd; they know how to wheedle their master with words and gain his favor by acts; but in their souls they become small and warped. For they have been deprived of growth and straightforwardness and independence by the slavery they have endured from their youth up, for this forces them to do crooked acts by putting a great burden of fears and dangers upon their souls while these are still tender; and since they cannot bear this burden with uprightness and truth, they turn forthwith to deceit and to requiting wrong with wrong, so that they become greatly bent and stunted.

What is Thought?

The soul, as the image presents itself to me, when it thinks, is merely conversing with itself, asking itself questions and answering, affirming and denying. When it has arrived at a decision, whether slowly or with a sudden bound, and is at last agreed, and is not in doubt, we call that its opinion; and so I define forming opinion as talking and opinion as talk which has been held, not with someone else, nor yet aloud, but in silence with oneself.

What is Knowledge?

1. Substance: A wise man is able to bring forth knowledge that passes the Socratic test, but a fool’s opinions are self-contradictory and insubstantial like a wind-egg.
2. Unity of Object, Perception and Thought: The correspondence between perception and thought. False opinion arises neither in the comparison of perception with perception nor yet thought with thought, but in the mismatched relation between thought and perception.
3. Unity of Object, Memory and Thought: Something acquired and stored in memory, but also active in thought. False opinion arises in the mismatch between a thing in thought and memory.
4. Uniformity or Simplicity: Absolute Knowledge is uniformly knowable and known. Contingent knowledge is the logical or orderly combination of elements, where the elements are not knowable, but only perceptible.
5. Communicability: The mirrored image of intellect.



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