What is Knowledge? Plato’s Theaetetus

In Theaetetus Plato plunges into epistemology, the theory of knowledge. What is knowledge? How do we know things? How do we really know what reality is? and similar questions are the topics of discussion.

The dialog opens with a flashback to Socrates, at the end of his life shortly before his trial, talking to the geometer Theodorus about his current pupils. Theodorus tells Socrates that one, Theaetetus, shows particular promise. The youth arrives on the scene and Socrates decides to test him dialectically. After some preliminary banter, he asks Theatetus to define knowledge, Theaetetus initially starts by listing different kinds of knowledge such as geometry, calculation, shoe making, and others. After some prompting from Socrates, he states that knowledge is perception. Socrates accepts this provisionally but points out that different observers perceive things differently. Does this mean that knowledge is relative? This begins a section which introduces the debate between objectivism and subjectivism which has been a perennial question of Western philosophy. According to most of the pre-Socratic philosophers, including Protagoras, Heracleitus, and Empedocles, reality is not only relative but in a state of constant flux, so knowledge about reality is also relative and mutable.

"Theaetetus crater 4103 h1 4103 h2" by James Stuby based on NASA Images [CC0 via Wikipedia]

“Theaetetus crater 4103 h1 4103 h2 (on Luna)” by James Stuby based on NASA Images [CC0 via Wikipedia]

This argument is the precursor not only to later Epicurean theories of the universe, such as we read about in Lucretius, but also foreshadows both postmodern theories of subjectivism and much of modern physics including thermodynamics, relativity, and quantum theory. For example, the passage,

Yes, Theaetetus, and there are plenty of other proofs which will show that motion is the source of what is called being and becoming, and inactivity of not-being and destruction; for fire and warmth, which are supposed to be the parent and guardian of all things, are born of movement and of friction, which is a kind of motion;–is not this then the origin of fire?

Expresses at least the glimmerings of an intuitive understanding of the laws of thermodynamics.

Socrates leads Theaetetus to explore the implications of these ideas further. He also introduces the point that mad men and dreamers see things that are not there, so perception does not necessarily lead to true knowledge. This struck me as interesting, since at the same time I was reading Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, in which the main character certainly seems to gain knowledge from events which occur only in his own mind. Be that as it may, however, Socrates’ arguments are more than enough to force Theaetetus to rescind his definition of knowledge as perception.

Socrates then steers the dialog into a discussion of the nature of memory. What about a man who has obtained true knowledge but then forgets or makes mistakes based on that knowledge?

At this point, Theaetetus needs a little help and, at the urging of Theodorus, begins to argue the opposite position. Among other things, he mentions the point that while all men might perceive things differently, wiser men and those with reason and specialized training in the subject at hand, are more likely to perceive correctly and gain true knowledge.

Socrates has another trick to spring, though, when leads Theaetetus to explore the question “What is perception?” and points out that sensory inputs are meaningless until processed by the mind (soul). He then asks about abstract concepts which can not be perceived with the senses. Theaetetus soon agrees that “[K]nowledge does not consist in impressions of sense, but in reasoning about them in that only, and not in the mere impression, truth and being can be attained[.]”

If knowledge is actually a sort of opinion, though, what about false opinions? This line of inquiry leads them back into an exploration of memory, since failure of memory is one possible cause of false opinions. This leads them back into deep waters. Socrates then points out that they have not adequately defined the verb “to know”, nor the concept of “false opinion”. With these points clarified he leads the boy on another discussion in which they define knowledge as “a way of understanding something by understanding it’s component parts.”

From this position, Socrates introduces yet a third conception of knowledge, understanding things by understanding the differences between them. But after discussing this, they conclude,

But how utterly foolish, when we are asking what is knowledge, that the reply should only be, right opinion with knowledge of difference or of anything! And so, Theatetus, knowledge is neither sensation nor true opinion, nor yet definition and explanation accompanying and added to true opinion?”

Since the definition itself includes the word “knowledge” and is thus circular. However, even though they have failed to provide the definition for which they were seeking, they are better for the attempt itself. Socrates then leaves for his indictment before the king archon, possibly never to see Theaetetus again.

Never mentioned explicitly, yet ever present in the dialog, is Plato’s theory of ideas. Plato believed that even though the material world is indeed mutable, imperfect, and subjective, everything in it partakes of perfect ideals or ideas which are unchanging and objective. Perhaps Socrates doesn’t bring up the theory of ideas because he wants to see if Theatetus will discover the concept on his own. Perhaps Plato is simply trying to keep the dialog to a manageable size and complexity. Or perhaps the state of epistemology conveyed in the dialog is actually as far as Socrates ever got on the subject, and this particular dialog is meant to express the master’s views without Plato’s later additions.

Hesse’s Siddhartha

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse - coverSiddhartha is Hermann Hesse’s best known novel in the English speaking world. Unlike his earlier works which are semi-autobiographical and describe young men in dealing with crises of faith in contemporary Europe, Siddhartha is set in ancient India during the lifetime of the Buddha. When the book came out in 1927 it gave many westerners their first exposure to Eastern philosophy and religion. It is frequently included on lists of influential books of the 20th century and is a good candidate for inclusion on a Great Books reading list.

The full name of the “Supreme Buddha”, the founder of Buddhism was Siddhārtha Gautama. In Hesse’s book, however, he is represented by two discrete characters: Siddhartha, the protagonist, and Gotama, the founder of the religion.

Please note that the remainder of this post contains spoilers.

Siddhartha is a gifted son of a brahmin who is being groomed for a career in the ancient Vedic religion. In his twenties he becomes disillusioned with his fathers’ faith, which he believes is unlikely to lead to enlightenment. He and his friend Govinda leave their village and join a band of Samanas, wandering ascetic holy men who reject the teachings of the brahmins. Historically, by the time of the Buddha, their were numerous Samana sects with widely differing philosophies and practices. As portrayed by Hesse, they are very similar to the Cynic philosophers of the ancient world, who rejected all materialism and lived in voluntary poverty under a strict moral code. This is only one of the points where syncretism creeps in between Hesse’s “Eastern” novel and the Western philosophy of his literary background.

After three years Siddhartha and Govinda become frustrated with the Samanas’ program. Hearing that a new spiritual leader, Gotama, has achieved enlightenment they decide to seek him out and hear his teachings. Govinda is soon convinced and becomes a Buddhist monk. Siddhartha finds he has tremendous respect for Gotama Buddha and truly believes he is enlightened. However, he concludes that it is not possible to learn wisdom from a teacher, but only through personal experience. The split between organized religion and received authority, symbolized by Govinda and individual spiritualism and inquiry, symbolized by Siddhartha, becomes the most important theme for the rest of the book. Readers of my blog will also recall that the question of whether virtue (wisdom) can be taught was also of preeminent importance to Socrates and Plato–another incidence of Hesse’s syncretism.

After taking leave of Gotama and Govinda Siddhartha has an epiphany in which he decides to embrace materialism and accept the beauty of the universe in all its myriad forms, rejecting the idealistic philosophy of the Vedic and Buddhist religions, in which the world is seen as illusion. The parallels between his internal dialogue and the writings of the Epicureans, like Lucretius, are obvious. The practices that Siddhartha adopts are more like the bourgeoisie Epicureanism of Claudian Rome than the pure philosophy of Epicurus; he follows his new acceptance of materialism to the nearest city. Here he immediately embarks on a love affair with a high-profile courtesan, goes into business, and spends the next couple of decades making himself a wealthy self-made man. In the process he picks up a drinking problem and a gambling addiction. Finally, disgusted with himself, he walks away from everything and becomes a simple ferry-man on the banks of a river. Here, under the tutelage of a wise older ferryman he finally achieves inner peace.

The idea that philosophers should experience the world in their youth also shows up frequently in Plato, particularly in The Republic where the Guardians were not to be taught philosophy until they were thirty, and afterwards were to be turned adrift to make their way in the world for fifteen years, at which time they could assume their roles as philosopher-rulers.

Statue of Hermann Hesse in Calw, Germany [public domain via Wikipedia]

Statue of Hermann Hesse in Calw, Germany [public domain via Wikipedia]

It is natural that Hesse, who was raised in the Western tradition and educated in a European seminary (until he suffered a crisis of faith and dropped out), would interpret Eastern philosophy through the lens of his own background. It is also probably that I, raised in the same tradition, would criticize his work through a similar lens–particularly since I have been working with Plato and Lucretius recently and their writings are fresh in my mind. It is also true that authors, once they have created an individual style and enjoyed some commercial success, tend to follow it in subsequent works. So is this just a “typical” Hermann Hesse novel, but simply told in a new setting? I thought so until I read the final two chapters, in which Siddhartha’s personal philosophy reaches an ultimate formation which is distinctly, unarguably Asian.

The opposite of every truth is just as true! That’s like this: any truth
can only be expressed and put into words when it is one-sided.
Everything is one-sided which can be thought with thoughts and said with
words, it’s all one-sided, all just one half, all lacks completeness,
roundness, oneness. When the exalted Gotama spoke in his teachings of
the world, he had to divide it into Sansara and Nirvana, into deception
and truth, into suffering and salvation. It cannot be done differently,
there is no other way for him who wants to teach. But the world itself,
what exists around us and inside of us, is never one-sided. A person or
an act is never entirely Sansara or entirely Nirvana, a person is never
entirely holy or entirely sinful. It does really seem like this,
because we are subject to deception, as if time was something real.
Time is not real, Govinda, I have experienced this often and often
again. And if time is not real, then the gap which seems to be between
the world and the eternity, between suffering and blissfulness, between
evil and good, is also a deception.

The acceptance of paradox is one of the major traits which sets Eastern thought apart from Western thought. Westerners have always sought to categorize the universe, to break it down into ideas which are either one thing or another. Easterners except that a concept can be two, apparently contradictory, things at once. Even the most famous and enduring paradoxes in Western thought, the doctrine of the Trinity, was a product of Eastern thinkers and has never sat entirely comfortably with the West.

Likewise, the acceptance of nonlinear time is a hallmark of Eastern thinking. In the East, time can be circular if not completely illusory,

The sinner, which I am and which you are, is a sinner, but in times to come he will be Brahma again, he will reach the Nirvana, will be Buddha–and now see: these ‘times to come’ are a deception, are only a parable! The sinner is not on his way to become a Buddha, he is not in the process of developing, though our capacity for thinking does not know how else to picture these things. No, within the sinner is now and today already the future Buddha, his future is already all there, you have to worship in him, in you, in everyone the Buddha which is coming into being, the possible, the hidden Buddha. The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no, it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life. It is not possible for any person to see how far another one has already progressed on his path; in the robber and dice-gambler, the Buddha is waiting; in the Brahman, the robber is waiting. In deep meditation, there is the possibility to put time out of existence, to see all life which was, is, and will be as if it was simultaneous, and there everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahman.

When I read this last chapter I realized that everything which proceeded it was part of Hesse’s design to, masterfully, lead his Western readers to a place where they might be able to appreciate these viewpoints.

Role of the Philosopher in Greek and Roman Society

Lately I have been drilling down to write about specific works by individual Greek authors. It seems worthwhile, though, to break for a bit to write generally about the role of the philosopher in Hellenistic society. By “Hellenistic” I mean not only the society of Greece in Socrates’ time, but also under the Macedonians and their successors and the thoroughly Hellenized pagan Rome. Indirectly, though, since our own western civilization is itself a successor to these cultures, considering how philosophers fit into them might yield some clues about the place of intellectuals in our own society.

Greek Philosophers [photo by J.D. Falk CC BY-SA 2.0]

Greek Philosophers [photo by J.D. Falk CC BY-SA 2.0]

Many feel that philosophy was born in the work of epic poets, and no one can deny that works of Homer, at least, are laden with philosophical concepts. Philosophy and literature have always been linked. However, the first people we would consider to be philosophers, in the modern sense, all affluent men from the Ionian cities of Asia Minor. The Greek economy had evolved and society had stabilized, to the point where the upper classes had leisure to contemplate the great questions and write down their conclusions for the edification of their friends. Interest in philosophy as an aristocratic hobby soon spread to the Sicily and the Greek mainland, particularly the Attic peninsula and the newly boobing town of Athens. For generations, however, no one considered philosophy to be a career: philosophy was something one did, not something one was. The business of Greek aristocrats to govern the polis and their own estates; philosophy was nothing but an interesting distraction.

By the time of the Periclean golden age, this was beginning to change. Sophists like Protagoras and Hippias earned fame and a comfortable living by teaching practical rhetoric, spiced with philosophy, to aspiring politicians. Judging by the descriptions of them in Plato’s dialogs, they were happy to accept free room and board on their travels and “sing for their supper” by lecturing or engaging in philosophical discourse. When Socrates became interested in philosophy, probably some time in his thirties, he began seeking these men out whenever he heard they were in town. Socrates, however, was a different kind of philosopher. While he was a member of the citizen class, he never seems to have been wealthy. He came from a family of stone cutters and probably followed the trade himself as a young man. Unlike some of his aristocratic friends, he spent at least half his life as a full time philosopher. Unlike the sophists, and to the consternation of his wife Xanthippe, he never attempted to charge tuition from his students. He was always desperately poor, and is the first and most famous of many in history to choose a life of philosophical poverty.

By the time of Plato, philosophy seems to have been regarded as a legitimate career choice. Young Plato considered becoming a politician like his uncle, almost became a playwright, and finally chose to be a philosopher after being influenced by Socrates. Plato had family money and his academy itself seems to have been bought with money originally raised by his friends to rescue him when he got in trouble during an ill-advised foray into in Sicilian politics, effectively making him the first endowed chair of philosophy in Western history. Even so, it is important to draw the distinction that he was a full time philosopher from an aristocratic background, rather than an a full time aristocrat who happened to be interested in philosophy.

Socrates and Plato became the archetypes for generations of philosophers who came to Athens from all over the known world to teach and study philosophy. Some were wealthy, others much less so, but material affluence had little affect on life at the Athenian academies. John Henry Newman, The University: Its Rise and Progress (of which I recently edited a new edition) describes the entry of the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes (born about a century later than Plato) in Athens,

So now let us fancy our Scythian, or Armenian, or African, or Italian, or Gallic student, after tossing on the Saronic waves, which would be his more ordinary course to Athens, at last casting anchor at Piraeus. He is of any condition or rank of life you please, and may be made to order, from a prince to a peasant. Perhaps he is some Cleanthes, who has been a boxer in the public games. How did it ever cross his brain to betake himself to Athens in search of wisdom? or, if he came thither by accident, how did the love of it ever touch his heart? But so it was, to Athens he came with three drachmas in his girdle, and he got his livelihood by drawing water, carrying loads, and the like servile occupations. He attached himself, of all philosophers, to Zeno the Stoic—to Zeno, the most high-minded, the most haughty of speculators; and out of his daily earnings the poor scholar brought his master the daily sum of an obolus, in payment for attending his lectures. Such progress did he make, that on Zeno’s death he actually was his successor in his school; and, if my memory does not play me false, he is the author of a hymn to the Supreme Being, which is one of the noblest effusions of the kind in classical poetry. Yet, even when he was the head of a school, he continued in his illiberal toil as if he had been a monk; and, it is said, that once, when the wind took his pallium, and blew it aside, he was discovered to have no other garment at all;—something like the German student who came up to Heidelberg with nothing upon him but a great coat and a pair of pistols.

The academy of Athens continued until it was finally closed at the order of Justinian I in 529 AD. In other parts of the Greek world we find professional philosophers serving as tutors to royals and nobles, as Aristotle did to Alexander, or occasionally as state employees, such as those at the library of Alexandria under the Ptolemies. Everywhere in the East though, the philosophy was considered a respectable–if rarely lucrative–profession.

Ancient Library of Alexandria.  O. Von Corven [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Ancient Library of Alexandria. O. Von Corven [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

In Rome and the eastern Mediterranean things were somewhat different. Roman culture had been heavily influenced by Greece from a very early point. After Rome annexed the Greek mainland following the Third Macedonian War (an event Will Durant called “The Conquest By Greece”) Roman and Greek high culture became nearly indistinguishable. However, the professional philosopher never attained the same stature as in the east. Ironically, philosophy itself was extremely popular in the pagan Roman Empire. All young upper class Romans (of both sexes) were exposed to Greek philosophy as part of their education and some even studied in Athens. All individuals of cultivation were expected to have articulate opinions on philosophy. Many leading citizens identified with particular philosophic sects: most often Stoicism, but sometimes Epicureanism, Cynicism, or Neo-Platonism. Paul Veyne, in A History of Private Life From Pagan Rome to Byzantium writes about how it was fashionable for senators and even emperors to style themselves as “philosophers” and adopt the unkempt beards and simple robes of the profession, yet few or none of them actually practiced the ideals of this philosophy in their daily lives. They were far too busy holding offices, running their estates, and finding ways to become even more wealthy.

These Romans were very much like a modern American bourgeoisie who takes yoga classes and wears yoga clothes everywhere, yet doesn’t bother to integrate the teachings into her career in any way. According to Veyne, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius was actually a writing assignment, one of the “steps” of a three step self-help program.

There were professional philosophers in the Western Empire, but most of them seem to have been attached to the household staff of wealthy Romans, and at least some of them were slaves (as were many many doctors, accountants, and other professionals in Rome). As tutors to the pater familias and his children they probably had a high status relative to other household servants, but they were still poor and dependent on their patrons for protection. Those who didn’t have a patron tried to find one quickly, or else headed back East.

The one group of affluent Romans who came closest to actually practicing philosophy were the philosophical poets of the early Imperial period: particularly Lucretius, but also Horace, Virgil, and others. Clearly, there work contains much philosophy, but were they themselves philosophers? George Santayana dealt with this question in Three Philosophical Poets,

Here, I think, we have the solution to our doubt. The reasonings and investigations of philosophy are arduous, and if poetry is to be linked with them, it can be artificially only, and with a bad grace. But the vision of philosophy is sublime. The order it reveals in the world is something beautiful, tragic, sympathetic to the mind, and just what every poet, on a small or on a large scale, is always trying to catch.

[E]ven if we grant that the philosopher, in his best moments, is a poet, we may suspect that the poet has his worst moments when he tries to be a philosopher, or rather, when he succeeds in being one.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that Lucretius and his fellows did not discover any great new ideas in philosophy. Every truth which they included in their poems, no matter how beautifully and clearly, was parroted from one or another of the Greeks. There work, like Homer’s before, is great literature. It is not great philosophy.

And so, the Eastern and Western halves of the Hellenistic world had more or less similar conceptions of the amateur gentleman-philosopher, and very different ideas of the professional philosopher. In Greece and the East he became a revered academic who devoted his life to the pursuit of philosophic truth. In Rome and the West he was simply one more hanger-on of the well equipped household, almost a human fashion accessory. At this time I am not going to comment on the present status of philosophers in Western Civilization, having already run some six centuries ahead of myself in my Great Books program. I will say only that our own society’s views contain elements of both the Greek and the Roman, yet seem to be trending more towards the Roman as time passes.