Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Plato's 'Theaetetus': On the Way to the Logos

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Plato's 'Theaetetus': On the Way to the Logos

Article excerpt

THE OPENING OF THE THEAETETUS(1) is curious. The report we have of another opening of nearly the same length indicates that it was always a curiosity.(2) If both openings are Plato's, and the rest of the dialogue they preface were not different, then Plato changed his mind about how to start off the trilogy to which the Theaetetus belongs. If the second version is spurious, someone thought he could surpass Plato and make a more sensible introduction. If ours is spurious, however, then we cannot hope to interpret it. If we assume its genuineness and that it represents Plato's only or final recension--the other one is said to be spurious and rather frigid--then the Theaetetus opens with our listening in on a recital of the conversation Socrates had with Theaetetus and Theodorus shortly before his death, while we supposedly are hearing it in Megara many years after the conversation occurred.

The temporal and spatial layers of the dialogue are these: (1) the original conversation; (2) Socrates' report of it to Euclides, in which every speech, explicitly or not, had a parenthetical "I said" or "He said"; (3) Euclides' notes on Socrates' report which Euclides corrected after his frequent returns to Athens; (4) Euclides' retranslation of Socrates' report into nonnarrated dialogue; (5) Plato's eavesdropping on Euclides and Terpsion in Megara, and his subsequent transcription of the slaveboy's reading of the dialogue after their return to Euclides' house; and (6) our reading or hearing the dialogue at another time and another place. It is possible to ticket each of these layers, but it seems impossible to do anything with our careful discrimination of them. We are left with a logos whose indices of space and time alter while it itself presumably remains the same. It carries a reminder of the irrecoverable particularity of the original setting no less than of its subsequent transpositions, but the logos stands clear of what occasioned it and remains to be viewed without distortion under strata of nonillusory transparency.

The publication of the logos is due to Plato. Euclides was content to render an illusion of the original conversation, in conformity with Socrates' recommendation in the Phaedrus, as his own private reminder. One might suppose, however, that he would not have gone to so much trouble had he not intended to publish it at some time or other. Had not Plato intervened, and Euclides got around to bringing it into the light, we might have had a non-Platonic Socratic dialogue, which would have had a purely accidental link with Plato's Sophist and Statesman. They could still be taking up where the Theaetetus left off, but the difference in authorship would have hindered us from reading the Theaetetus in light of Plato's twins. The Theaetetus would not be standing at the head of the seven dialogues that now constitute a single logos about the trial and death of Socrates. It seems, then, that Plato has imagined what the transmission of Socrates' teaching would have been like had his illness at the time of Socrates' death been fatal,(3) and Socrates had had to rely on Euclides for getting out his message. The extreme skepticism of the Megarian school, with its reliance on nothing but logos, would have received its imprimatur in Euclides' Theaetetus. The solution to such a radical skepticism that we now find in the Sophist and the Statesman would have been missing.

The Theaetetus of course would not have been entirely free of the circumstantial. Socrates implies in his first speech to Theodorus that he is tied down to the local more than Theodorus is, and he does not fail to bring the dialogue down to earth by mentioning at the end that he must go to the stoa of King Archon to face the indictment Meletus has drawn up against him. Socrates the gossip, who knows all about Theaetetus's father, cannot possibly be the philosopher whom Socrates describes to Theodorus, whose body alone remains in the city but whose thought flies above and below the earth. …

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