Persons of the Dialogue : SOCRATES ; THEODORUS ; THEAETETUS. Scene : Euclid and Terpsion meet in front of Euclid’s house in Megara ; they enter the house, and the dialogue is read to them by a servant.
The dialogue is an enquiry into the nature of knowledge, which is interrupted by two digressions. The first is the digression about the midwives, which is also a leading thought or continuous image, like the wave in the Republic, appearing and reappearing at intervals. Again and again we are reminded that the successive conceptions of knowledge are extracted from Theaetetus, who in his turn truly declares that Socrates has got a great deal more out of him than ever was in him. Socrates is never weary of working out the image in humorous details,—discerning the symptoms of labour, carrying the child round the hearth, fearing that Theaetetus will bite him, comparing his conceptions to wind-eggs, asserting an hereditary right to the occupation. There is also a serious side to the image, which is an apt similitude of the Socratic theory of education (cp. Repub. vii. 518 D, Sophist 230), and accords with the ironical spirit in which the wisest of men delights to speak of himself.
The other digression is the famous contrast of the lawyer and philosopher. This is a sort of landing-place or break in the middle of the dialogue. At the commencement of a great discussion, the reflection naturally arises, How happy are they who, like the philosopher, have time for such discussions (cp. Rep. v. 450)! There is no reason for the introduction of such a digression; nor is a reason always needed, any more than for the introduction of an episode in a poem, or of a topic in conversation. That which is given by Socrates is quite sufficient, viz. that the philosopher may talk and write as he pleases. But though not very closely connected, neither is the digression out of keeping with the rest of the dialogue. The philosopher naturally desires to pour forth the thoughts which are always present to him, and to discourse of the higher life. The idea of knowledge, although hard to be defined, is realised in the life of philosophy. And the contrast is the favourite antithesis between the world, in the various characters of sophist, lawyer, statesman, speaker, and the philosopher,—between opinion and knowledge,—between the conventional and the true.
The greater part of the dialogue is devoted to setting up and throwing down definitions of science and knowledge. Proceeding from the lower to the higher by three stages, in which perception, opinion, reasoning are successively examined, we first get rid of the confusion of the idea of knowledge and specific kinds of knowledge,—a confusion which has been already noticed in the Lysis, Laches, Meno, and other dialogues. In the infancy of logic, a form of thought has to be invented before the content can be filled up. We cannot define knowledge until the nature of definition has been ascertained. Having succeeded in making his meaning plain, Socrates proceeds to analyze (1) the first definition which Theaetetus proposes: ‘Knowledge is sensible perception.’ This is speedily identified with the Protagorean saying, ‘Man is the measure of all things;’ and of this again the foundation is discovered in the perpetual flux of Heracleitus. The relativeness of sensation is then developed at length, and for a moment the definition appears to be accepted. But soon the Protagorean thesis is pronounced to be suicidal; for the adversaries of Protagoras are as good a measure as he is, and they deny his doctrine. He is then supposed to reply that the perception may be true at any given instant. But the reply is in the end shown to be inconsistent with the Heraclitean foundation, on which the doctrine has been affirmed to rest. For if the Heraclitean flux is extended to every sort of change in every instant of time, how can any thought or word be detained even for an instant? Sensible perception, like everything else, is tumbling to pieces. Nor can Protagoras himself maintain that one man is as good as another in his knowledge of the future; and ‘the expedient,’ if not ‘the just and true,’ belongs to the sphere of the future.