Murder and Midwifery:Metaphor in the Theaetetus
The Theaetetus's midwifery metaphor is well-known; less discussed is the brief passage accusing Socrates of behaving like Antaeus. Are philosophers midwives or monsters? Socrates accepts both characterizations. This passage and Socrates's acceptance of the metaphor creates a tension in the text, birthing a puzzle about how readers ought to understand the figure of the philosopher. Because metaphors play a pivotal role in the dialogue's ethical project, the puzzle presents not simply a textual tension but a question of how and why to be a philosopher.
At 169a6–c7 of the Theaetetus, during something of a conversational struggle, Theodorus claims Socrates's behavior recalls that of Antaeus and Sciron, mythic antagonists of ancient heroes Heracles and Theseus.1 The passage is arresting both because, thus far, the dominant image for Socrates's philosophical conversation has been of a midwife, not a pair of murderers vanquished by demigods, and also because Socrates cheerfully takes up the image, rather than disavowing it. Why does Plato draw this comparison? Alongside metaphors from contests and games, wrestling metaphors occur throughout the text, but murder and assault do not. Through contemplating the question "What is episteme?" Socrates, Theaetetus, and Theodorus also consider what it means to be a philosopher, how one should be a philosopher, and the good of philosophy. Sometimes, philosophers are midwives; sometimes they are murderers. Why does the text endorse the alignment of Socrates and his philosophical method with Antaeus and his attacks on passersby? Metaphors play an important role in the Theaetetus's presentation of the [End Page 97] philosophical life, so questions about their meaning have philosophical significance.
In order to address the puzzle of the midwife/murderer/philosopher, I first present the critical project, assaying ways the text's broader context compounds the peculiarity of the analogy between Socrates and Antaeus. I then contrast the comparison to Antaeus with the other prominent metaphors: midwifery and nonmythological wrestling. These other metaphors render Theodorus's comment incongruous—they might also suggest an inconsistent idea of the philosopher. This article's constructive project is modest. I attempt to discover if the inconsistency is actual or merely apparent. I conclude by suggesting ways to resolve the tension between the two modes of philosophy, but even if we can clarify the confusion Theodorus introduces, the tensions in this exchange deserve philosophical regard.
During a break from the arguments about Protagorean relativism, Socrates tries to engage Theodorus in a philosophical discussion on behalf of Protagoras's position. As a student of Protagoreanism, Theodorus is well qualified to discuss the doctrine, but he demurs: "Wouldn't Theaetetus be better at following an inquiry into a theory than a good many men with long beards?" (168e5–6).2 Socrates insists Theodorus will do very well, and furthermore, Theodorus is letting down Protagoras: "Stop thinking I'm under every obligation to defend your dead friend, whereas you're not under any" (168e7). Socrates's flattery and courtesy are lightly ironic, but his persistence is sincere. Theodorus should speak up for Protagoras, should do his part in the philosophical conversation by defending his teacher and friend and supporting his student. Socrates will not let Theodorus off the hook, cajoling, "Come on: come with me a little way" (169a2). Exasperated and boxed into a conversational corner, Theodorus complains of this treatment by likening Socrates to murderers:
It isn't easy to avoid saying something when one's sitting with you, Socrates. I was talking nonsense . . . when I claimed that you'd let me keep my clothes on and not make me take them off, like the Spartans. You seem to me to incline more in the direction of Sciron. The Spartans tell one either to take one's clothes off or to go away, but you seem to me to act a part more like that of Antaeus: you don't let go of anyone who comes [End Page 98] up to you until you've forced him to take his clothes off and wrestle with you in an argument.(169a6–b4)
Theodorus's response is unfriendly. Socrates pursues truth doggedly—but he invites others along on that pursuit, an invitation Theodorus likens to mythical assault and murder.
A foe of Heracles, Antaeus is the son of Poseidon and Gaia. He lives in Libya, sometimes in a cave, and challenges passing travelers to wrestling matches. Antaeus always wins because he cannot be defeated so long as he is in contact with his mother, the earth. Victorious, Antaeus then takes the skull of his opponent to decorate a temple to Poseidon. Heracles defeats Antaeus by lifting him up off the earth, depriving him of his strength, crushing his ribs, and killing him. Accounts of Heracles's actions after the fight vary: sometimes he rapes or marries Antaeus's daughter, sometimes his wife; usually, this results in the founding of a city.
Antaeus's wide-ranging history as a rhetorical and mythological figure incorporates ideas of foreignness, civilization, and religious devotion. According to Ory Amitay, Antaeus is an ambivalent figure "even within the Pindaric corpus . . . portrayed both as a homicidal ogre and as a benevolent host and desirable father-in-law."3 The understanding of Antaeus on which the Theaetetus trades originates in Antaeus the "homicidal ogre," where "ogre" is less a biological distinction than a character distinction. In drawing the comparison, Theodorus presents an unambiguously negative view of Socrates's character.
Socrates is clearly annoying. He says himself that "there have been many people before now who have been so disposed towards me as to be ready literally to bite me" (151c5–7). Nothing is odd about a character in a Platonic dialogue protesting the frustrations of Socrates's conversation, but there is something odd about comparing Socrates to two mythological murderers. Stranger still, Socrates also says at that he infuriates people "out of goodwill" and a sense of what is right and true (151dc9–d3). Such a motivation directly contradicts Theodorus's reference to Antaeus, which suggests little goodwill to men.
Prior to Theodorus's mythological allusion, the main metaphor for philosophy has been Socrates's own: midwifery. There is a striking disanalogy between midwifery and murder, even if, following Socrates, we extend our understanding of midwifery's duties to encompass activities beyond the childbed. A midwife's primary activity is bringing healthy children into the world; Antaeus's primary activity is killing passersby. Theodorus might be frustrated, tired of philosophy, prickly at the [End Page 99] treatment his mentor Protagoras receives at Socrates's hands. Even so, his harsh challenge describes Socrates not only as someone who accosts people but also as a menace and murderer. Theodorus's outburst is unsporting. Those long acquainted with Socrates might think, "This is odd, but Plato is canny and Socrates can take a joke; perhaps Socrates will reject the metaphor, or tweak it so that he takes ownership of it in an unexpected way. Perhaps Socrates will recast himself as Heracles or Theseus. Surely a midwife is more like a hero or fairy godmother than a hero's antagonist." And as readers of the Apology, we recall that Socrates does cast himself, obliquely, humorously, as Heracles: "I must present all my wanderings to you as if they were labors of some sort that I undertook in order to prove the oracle utterly irrefutable" (22a5–7).4 Like Heracles, Socrates founds cities, or at least describes them robustly, so he might be able to claim some attenuated kinship.
Socrates does not subvert the metaphor. He calls Theodorus's analogy "excellent," except for one small caveat: "You've found an excellent comparison for what's wrong with me, Theodorus. But I've got more endurance than Sciron or Antaeus. Countless times already a Heracles or a Theseus, dauntless in arguing, has met me and given me a good thrashing, but that doesn't make me give up: such a terrible passion for exercise about these matters has infected me. So you, too, mustn't grudge me the chance of benefiting both of us, if you have a bout with me" (169b5–c3). Socrates not only accepts Theodorus's comparison, he praises it. It captures him perfectly, except he is more obsessed, insistent—his ribs are only bruised and his feet are on the ground. Even if Socrates identifies the "heroes" ironically, he has not defused the tensions raised by Theodorus's original remark. Indeed, Socrates's response introduces new rhetorical complications, extending even beyond the issue of Antaeus, and emphasizes the strangeness of the passage.
There are several potential reactions to the tension I am investigating. The rest of this paper explores the various metaphors and ways they are in conflict or agreement with one another as images for philosophical activity. I will suggest a deflationary reading—but one that fails to fully dissolve the problem, leaving several bewildering elements of the Theaetetus remaining.
The first, most obvious challenge posed by comparing Antaeus and Socrates is that the contrast conflicts, or at least seems to, with the [End Page 100] midwife comparison that is the dialogue's dominant theme for Socratic philosophical exercise. Socrates introduces the midwife motif himself, claiming to inherit the art from his mother, "a fine strapping midwife called Phaenarete" (149a1–2). He also says this art of his is a secret, and most people simply think that "I'm very odd, and that I make people feel difficulties" (149a9–10). Socrates tells Theaetetus that understanding "how things are in general with midwives" will help elucidate Socrates's conversation, though his art is mental and his mother's was physical (149b4–5). A consideration of midwives' skills helps identify where Socrates takes the kinship between the two arts to reside.
Socrates describes midwives as women past their childbearing capabilities; they are divinely blessed because they share their barrenness with Artemis (149b–150b). Midwives have the skills of detecting pregnancy, easing labor, and bringing about abortions, and are "the cleverest of match-makers"—a very different activity from "the unskilled way of bringing a man and a woman together which has the name of procuring" (149d5, 150ba1).5 Socrates's art differs in a few respects: he does not attend women and bodies, but men and minds, and he has the responsibility of determining whether the labor he oversees produces "imitations" or "genuine children," meaning that "the greatest thing in my art is . . . to be able to test, by every means, whether it's an imitation and a falsehood that the young man's intellect is giving birth to, or something genuine and true" (150a8–c2). But like midwives, Socrates is barren, meaning, in this instance, that he is "unproductive of wisdom" rather than of children (150c3).
Zina Giannopoulou suggests four areas in which Socratic midwifery differs from the elenctic practice: the midwife assists other people, rather than refuting and examining them; elenchus "is more confrontational than collaborative," while midwifery is "predicated on cooperative effort"; as a midwife, Socrates is sought out, rather than seeking; and elenchus "exposes . . . epistemic pretensions" but Theaetetus is epistemically humble.6 Antaeus has more in common with Giannopoulou's elenctic Socrates than Socrates the midwife: Antaeus does not help his opponents, the wrestling match is coerced rather than cooperative, Antaeus assaults his victims, and Antaeus has nothing to test in his victims except their strength—tests which, given his invincibility, underline aggression instead of cooperation. Nor does the Antaeus image easily cohere with Socrates's own explicit comparisons. The contexts and characteristics of midwifery do not apply to Antaeus. He is neither barren nor a touchstone for epistemic convictions; anyone less strong or less informed [End Page 101] than Heracles will fall to him. Primarily, the images differ in intention and activity: Socrates and midwives paradigmatically act for the benefit of others—they bring people together and life into the world. Antaeus does not wish others well; he kills people. However, as I alluded to above, myths change over time, so consideration is important as to whether the myth of Antaeus has more nuances than my analysis has so far allowed.
The basic myth of Antaeus would have been the same for Plato as it is to twenty-first-century readers; Antaeus's character does not change very much. However, other Platonic sources, literary sources, and artistic sources highlight elements of the story that might have been more obvious to Socrates and Theodorus than to contemporary readers. The only other Platonic reference to Antaeus is in Laws, which credits, or blames, him for introducing "devices . . . into the art of wrestling for the sake of empty glory," such as the use of legs, innovations that are of no use outside the wrestling ring.7 William Magrath interprets this version of Antaeus, rather charitably, as "a skilled and inventive, though disreputable, wrestler," which makes him sound less like Socrates than the Sophists or Cynics.8 Turning our attention to nonphilosophical sources, we find that vase paintings and Pindaric poetry that predate Plato treat Antaeus as a paradigmatic foreigner or barbarian. Considering Antaeus as a barbarian only makes the exchange at 169a even stranger.
Though Plato actually quotes Pindar in the Digression of the Theaetetus, my discussion is necessarily limited to Plato's cultural context, not his own reading habits (173e). Sources contemporary with Plato emphasize Antaeus's foreignness. In vase paintings, Magrath argues, Antaeus's hirsute appearance identifies him as a barbarian, whose "hair is still worn long in contrast to Herakles' short curls . . . and Painter S indicates the giant's hairiness by picking out hairs on his shoulder-blade" (Magrath, p. 221). After his defeat, his family members watch and mourn him and "lend . . . a certain civilized dignity, a social status befitting the ruler of the territory," but which also recollect the fate awaiting Antaeus's family (p. 221). In these vase paintings, Antaeus's story is the story of the vanquished, foreign monster.
Even in Pindar's positive portrayal, Antaeus is king of a foreign land. Antaeus's barbarian status makes him ripe for toppling by a civilized Greek hero, and his wife or daughter is a prize for the conqueror. Pindar's "Isthmian 4," an ode for a wrestler at the Isthmian Games, [End Page 102] "attributes to Herakles the altruistic motive of setting out to Libya in order to stop Antaios from roofing a temple to Poseidon with the skulls of foreigners" (Magrath, pp. 215–16). Antaeus guards Libya against foreign visitors, including Heracles, who, by killing Antaeus, saves many lives and assumes the role of "alexikakos [averter of evil] who is rewarded with immortality and Hebe." Pindar describes Heracles's happy ending as divinely blessed, god-garlanded: heroic Heracles "dwells beside aegis-bearing Zeus, and has the most beautiful prosperity. He is honored as a friend by the immortals and is married to Hebe; he is lord of a golden house, and son-in-law to Hera" and honored as a god.9 Heracles has also "tamed" the world for those who follow him.
In Pindar, Heracles tames the seas, and the image is relevant to his confrontation with Antaeus in "grain-bearing Libya" because both are services he has done mankind. Heracles's defeat of Antaeus supplies Greek expansion into Libya—not just Athenian expansion and invasion but Spartan as well—with a justificatory or honorific flourish. Heracles takes the same route as early Greek settlers in Libya, and Antaeus's birthplace is said to be Irasa, a "coveted agricultural center" Libyans hid from Greeks but eventually lost in battle (Amitay, p. 4). Amitay suggests that "the mythical precedent" would "both encourage . . . and legitimize" Greek persistence in Libya. Amitay also attributes to Diodorus (who postdates Plato) the information that after killing Antaeus, "Herakles proceeded to free Libya from the many wild beasts that infested her, and opened up the land for human habituation and fruitful cultivation" (p. 4). In summary, in this iteration Antaeus is an obstacle to Greek civilization, whom Greek heroes remove from Libya in order to remake the country. Perhaps, inasmuch as he is a countercultural figure, Socrates obstructs Greek civilization, but mostly, Socrates obstructs moral and epistemic self-satisfaction.
A more general consideration of Antaeus's barbarism still makes odd reading. When Socrates approaches Theodorus, he notes his preference for Athens over Cyrene: "If I cared more about the people in Cyrene, Theodorus, I'd be asking you . . . whether any of the young men there are taking an interest in geometry or any other way of cultivating wisdom. But as things are, I'm less fond of them than I am of the Athenians, and so I'm keener to know which of our young men are thought likely to turn out well" (143d1–6). Socrates enters the Theaetetus by disavowing interest in Cyrenaics in particular, making his ready claim later in the text—to be very like a mythical, murderous Cyrenaic—disorienting. Yet Theodorus, as mathematician and friend of Protagoras, has the weight [End Page 103] of authority and tradition behind him; Socrates places Protagoras with canonical figures like Homer (152e1–5). Socrates himself takes the role of outsider. So, their respective national allegiances are perplexing. By the time Theodorus lashes out, twenty-five Stephanus pages later, the geographical dynamics that characterize the confrontation between Heracles and Antaeus have been discarded and the thematic ones retained: Theodorus unwillingly enters new ground while Socrates holds the philosophical motherland against invaders.
Considering the significance Antaeus held in Plato's time only highlights the confusions of Theodorus and Socrates's exchange. Antaeus is a richly significant figure, one whose ambiguities receive less emphasis than his alienness and the threat he poses to civilization. I will return to the role of place in the Theaetetus later in this paper, but initial attention to geographical themes in the rhetoric of the dialogue only complicates the already puzzling metaphor. I turn next to an examination of Antaeus's other definitive trait: wrestling.
Theaetetus comes to Socrates's attention as he is finishing up his toilet after gymnastic training (144c1–4). This introduction, which also references Theaetetus's family history, character, and mathematical education, marks the intertwining of moral education, academics, and physical cultivation prevalent in Athenian culture. Plato uses athletic imagery frequently, as "more than literary window dressing," to communicate something about philosophy (Reid, p. 45).10 Athletics and philosophy both "expose imperfections, test for improvement, and provide public evidence of their findings," all themes operating in the Theaetetus. Both are concerned with excellence in young men, with making the "best people" into the best people. Socrates, however, is not interested in athletic honors; he "adapts this athletic framework . . . away from the relativistic goal of defeat and toward the idealistic goals of truth and virtue" (p. 45). Richard Patterson similarly argues that just as enthusiastic gymnastic exercise and competition helps train a young man's body, enthusiastic philosophical competition trains a young man's soul and instills wisdom. Plato's use of agonistic language adapts the concept of victory to signify "a removal of falsehood and above all a purgation of the false conceit of wisdom."11 The stakes for philosophical argument are actually higher than the stakes for wrestling, since "what one truly fears is not refutation of one's own views, or public loss of face . . ., or [End Page 104] being laughed at, but error in one's soul concerning life's most important questions" (Patterson, p. 338).
Socrates himself makes the wrestling comparison in an early attempt to convince Theodorus that philosophy is not a spectator sport: "If you went to the wrestling-rings in Sparta, Theodorus, would you think it proper to watch other people who were stripped, some of them with rather inferior physiques, and not take your own clothes off and show your figure?" (162b1–4). Socrates and Theaetetus have bravely stepped up to examine the suggested definition, but Theodorus hangs back. Indeed, Theodorus seems less interested in truth than in preserving his own dignity, pushing Theaetetus forward again "because it won't be so unseemly if he trips up" (165a9–b1). The exchange supports a practice of philosophical engagement modeled on mutual athletic striving and training. Theaetetus is modest, ready, and sincere in his efforts; Theodorus relies on his age to excuse himself from debate. Perhaps geometers need be less rigorously self-critical than philosophers, but Theodorus's fear of being made to look a fool (understandable, under the circumstances) is self-defeating. His demurrals and unwillingness to engage make him appear more the fool. We cannot help but contrast him with the truth-seeking practices modeled by the conversation between Theaetetus (a bit reluctant, but nevertheless sincere) and Socrates (committed, if not always sincere).
All of this plausibly aligns wrestling with the model of philosophy Plato endorses. But it does not quite remedy the problem of the comparison to Antaeus. The schema Theodorus establishes involves a spectrum of aggression: earlier, he complains that Socrates is like a Spartan in his insistence that Theodorus speak to the question of knowledge. But he finds that comparison insufficient to capture the way Socrates interacts with him once Socrates begins to really insist. That is, Theodorus's reference to Antaeus does not only pick out the goals of the project but also critiques, or complains of, the manner in which Socrates goes about his philosophical project. Two disanalogies, then, exist between the Antaeus comparison and the more general pattern of wrestling metaphors in the dialogues. First, Antaeus/Socrates is a more vicious opponent than is usual in wrestling; second, Antaeus/Socrates is a more dogged opponent than usual. These disanalogies align with the differences Giannopoulou highlights between Socrates's elenctic practice and his midwifery. The elenctic method is generally more in line with gymnastic wrestling, but it is still difficult to see how Antaeus's practice might fit either of Socrates's methods. And if Theodorus intends to protest Socrates's [End Page 105] vicious, dogged approach, then the puzzle about Socrates's accepting and compounding the comparison remains.
Perhaps Antaeus and midwives have some philosophical qualities in common. In brief: both midwives and Antaeus have a divine sanction that directs their activities, and this divine inspiration/motivation resembles the orientation that, on some readings, Plato attributes to philosophy. Similarly, Antaeus (a barbarian) and midwives (women) are outsiders to Athenian culture, the culture of the dialogues. While not decisive or conclusive similarities, these are interestingly evocative likenesses.
Admittedly, Antaeus's divine motivation, "roofing Poseidon's temple with the skulls of strangers," does not get explicit mention in the Theaetetus (Pindar l.50). It is, nevertheless, an integral part of the myth, and does predate Plato, so we might expect it to feature implicitly in any conversation about the myth. Socrates does, however, make explicit reference to midwifery's divine motivation, both conventional midwifery and his own philosophical variation. Socrates attributes some of the mental fertility of his "patients" and any of his own successes to the God: "At first some of them seem quite incapable of learning; but as our association advances, all those to whom God grants it make progress to an extraordinary extent" (150d4–5). A successful "delivery" is also to the credit of Socrates and the God (150d10–e1, 175e–176b3).
The philosopher of the Digression is a kind of outsider. Although a gentleman, and sometimes wealthy, when "forced to engage" with the less elevated world, "he raises a laugh . . . among the rabble in general" because he is out of his element (174c2–5). The Thracian slave girl mocks Thales "because, as she said, he was eager to know the contents of heaven, but didn't notice what was in front of him, under his feet" (174a5–b2). Antaeus gets into trouble, too, when he loses contact with the earth. He is a barbarian, not a Greek. Libya is a land for Greek conquest and exploitation, activities that are only possible once the native resisters have been cleared away by Heracles's civilizing strength. These aspects suggest Antaeus is a marginal figure, perhaps the same kind of marginal figure as a philosopher. The picture of midwifery the Theaetetus gives us also suggests a kind of marginal activity. Socrates keeps his midwifery secret (148a5–10). Conventional midwifery is an art practiced by women, belonging to the private realm, not the public realm. And we know that Socrates's brand of midwifery is out of favor [End Page 106] with most people, who don't understand it and attribute it to quirks or flaws in his character.
The trouble with investigating a metaphor is that one will, sooner or later, poke at it too much and it will snap. My reading of the Antaeus metaphor invites some deflationary objections. I will describe some of these readings, although none of them fully eliminates the ambiguities and tensions that Socrates has introduced into the text.
One deflationary strategy conceives the reference to the mythological villains as a reminder that Theodorus is from Cyrene, not Athens, and that Eucleides, the "author" of the Theaetetus, is from Megara (Sciron's home). These geographical references might convey philosophical positions. Ugo Zilioli suggests that the positions of the Megaran philosophers, Eucleides included, are present throughout the dialogue, and using a Megaran myth, emphasizes the significance of Megaran contributions to the text, even if Plato refutes the actual philosophical positions.12 Jacob Howland argues that as a member of the Megaran philosophical school, "for Eucleides, as for Protagoras, philosophy as the soul's progress toward wisdom is an illusion."13 The dialogue refutes the Protagorean position, and so it is hard to see why Plato would try to align Socrates with the Megaran thinkers who endorsed it. Further, it does not explain why Plato would employ these myths in a methodological context. If the point is directly philosophical, then surely the reference should speak to that, and not to the manner in which Socrates performs philosophy. The geographical readings are thus unsatisfying.
I think the most compelling deflationary reading goes something like this: Theodorus is a fool and a figure of fun in the text, so we should not give anything he says too much weight.14 Theodorus is really only drawing a partial comparison between Antaeus and Socrates; he limits the comparison himself when he says Socrates makes people strip and "wrestle . . . in an argument" (169b4). Theodorus actually discards Sciron in order to hone his complaint about Socrates. The comparison only stretches to the compulsive impulse shared by the wrestler and the philosopher, which Theodorus references explicitly, and the effect of the confrontation on their opponents is irrelevant. Socrates, perhaps, makes it relevant by bringing up Heracles, but in expanding the metaphor he does not endorse murdering anyone: in fact, he has met "countless times already [with] a Heracles or a Theseus" and they have [End Page 107] bested him (169b6–7). Socrates also transforms the bout of wrestling into a bout of philosophy, and makes clear that the contest in which he is trying to engage Theodorus will "benefit" them both (169c3). Such is Heather Reid's interpretation: "submission of oneself to the contest is required—but all contestants are expected to benefit, not just the winners" (Reid, p. 46). Death is not on anyone's mind. The contest of mutual striving after truth is what matters.
The reading that marginalizes the presence of death is persuasive to me, and it aligns nicely with the already mentioned link between athletic contests and truth-seeking activities such as philosophy or mathematics. However, this strategy does not wholly resolve the tensions Theodorus and Socrates introduced. Some problems are still on the mat.
Two problems are left to evaluate, and for the metaphorical minimalist to address. The first is in Socrates's response to Theodorus. Socrates says that Theodorus has spotted "what's wrong with me" (169b6) and describes philosophy as an affliction. This description needs explaining. The second problem concerns placing this passage within the dialogue's wider context, and perhaps within the Platonic corpus. Although different in scope, both of these problems are relevant to the picture of philosophy in the Theaetetus.
Why does Socrates reframe the role of Antaeus by denigrating what he asks of Theodorus? Socrates's response goes beyond self-deprecation, beyond modesty about his project. Socrates says that Theodorus has aptly identified "what's wrong with me." Other translators have Socrates call this his "weakness" (Paley), or his "complaint" (Fowler and Jowett, probably employing the medical sense of "complaint"). The language of illness features throughout Socrates's response: he attributes his persistence to the fact that "such a terrible passion for exercise about these matters has infected me" (169c1–2). If Socrates is weak, ill, and infected, how is interaction with him supposed to benefit Theodorus, as Socrates claims it will? Is this a way of reaffirming his barrenness? That is, the illness to which Socrates refers might be, indirectly, the very barrenness that makes him an excellent philosophical midwife. Such a reading is interesting to me, but I am not certain how someone defending it would bridge the gap between Socrates's avowed topics of conversation: his "pugnacious" approach to philosophical conversation with unwilling partners, and Theaetetus's moral and epistemological [End Page 108] coming-of-age (Jowett 169b6; McDowell has "endurance"). The passage toggles between sickness and health in a puzzling way. Theodorus invokes exercise, then moves to murder (very bad for the health); Socrates claims contact with his illness will have a salutary effect on others. The metaphors are ill at ease with each other.
Nor do the language of illness and the Antaeus comparison quite mesh with Socrates's other claims about the effects of philosophical conversation on Theaetetus's character. At the conclusion of the dialogue, having determined that all of Theaetetus's definitions were "the results of false pregnancies," Socrates informs Theaetetus that the conversation has been good for him and will improve his life in the future:
If you try, later on, to conceive anything else, and do so, what you're pregnant with will be the better for our present investigation. And if you stay barren, you'll be less burdensome to those who associate with you, and gentler, because you'll have the sense not to think you know things which in fact you don't know. That much my art can do, but no more, and I don't know any of the things which others know, all the great and admirable men there are and have been; but this gift of midwifery my mother and I received from God.(210b10-c7)
This portion of the dialogue invites contradictory reactions. It is fairly easy to square the picture of the philosopher here with the character of Theaetetus, but difficult to make fit with Socrates, the gadfly of the Apology, the pugnacious and determined wrestler, the ironic questioner. If his midwifery has indeed made Socrates gentler, it is frightening to consider how he might have comported himself without it. Gentleness simply seems not to occur to Socrates most of the time.
On the other hand, Theaetetus's good temper and character are established early. Eucleides and Terpsion praise him as a "fine person" and note that people have been "waxing positively lyrical about what [Theaetetus] did in the battle," though his fine conduct is completely expected (142b5–c2). Theodorus picks out Theaetetus for Socrates's project because of his demonstrated intelligence, but also praises him for being "more than usually good-tempered . . . courageous beyond equal," and possessed of a good memory (144a1–b3). Theaetetus approaches his education "smoothly, sure-footedly, and successfully, and with such good humour—like a stream of oil flowing along without a sound" (144b4–6). As David Sedley notes, Theaetetus is "already far advanced on the Republic's educational programme, [and] is on his way to moral virtue."15 As an adult, Theaetetus is a virtuous and intelligent [End Page 109] warrior and mathematician, sincere in his love of wisdom. Theaetetus is a kind of Platonic success story: he was good already, or on his way to being so, and philosophy has made him better. He is not "infected" or "afflicted" with a "terrible passion" in the way Socrates is. If we keep in mind Patterson's argument that philosophy is a kind of elevated agon, and recall the early, establishing mentions of Theaetetus as a wrestler, the general wrestling theme coheres with the picture of Theaetetus as a model of the Athenian gentleman and philosopher.16 We still have the problem of Socrates and Antaeus.
I have no satisfactory answer to the problem I raise about the difference between the Socrates as midwife and Socrates as Antaeus. I have suggested some interesting, inconclusive commonalities between the two motifs in the dialogue's account of philosophy as an activity. The deflationary reading challenges the need to look for these points of convergence and rejects the strongest interpretation of Theodorus's complaint. However, even the weaker reading fails to discover a reading of the dialogue that is, like Theaetetus, smooth, sure-footed, and successful. Those who accept the deflationary reading must still grapple with other ambiguities in the dialogue's ideas about philosophical activity.
My sincere thanks to Hugh Benson and, especially, Amy Olberding for perspective, advice, and encouragement while I worked on this paper.
1. Because the Antaeus reference receives more attention in the text, I will only treat Sciron minimally.
2. Theodorus has already claimed to be ill-suited to discussing arguments, since he left "a bit too soon" for geometry (164e8–165a2). All quotations of the Theaetetus come from Plato, Theaetetus, trans. John McDowell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), unless specified.
3. Ory Amitay, "Vagantibus Graeciae fabulis: The North African Wanderings of Antaios and Herakles," Mediterranean Historical Review (2014): 4; hereafter abbreviated Amitay. He also notes that Antaeus's earth-derived strength doesn't receive a detailed account until Lucan, several centuries after Plato (p. 3). However, Antaeus's link to Poseidon is present in Pindar.
4. Plato, Apology, in Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy, 3rd ed., trans. C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2005). For a catalogue of Socratic allusions to Heracles, see Patterson (note 11). [End Page 110]
5. Socrates also says that real midwives, "concerned . . . about their dignity, avoid even match-making" (150a3–4). I am not sure what this means about midwives' actual activities.
6. Zina Giannopoulou, Plato's "Theaetetus" as Second Apology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 39.
7. Plato, Laws, in Plato in Twelve Volumes, trans. H. N. Fowler (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1921), vol. 7, p. 796a.
8. William T. Magrath, "The Antaios Myth in Pindar," Transactions of the American Philological Association (1977): 221; hereafter abbreviated Magrath.
9. Pindar, "Isthmian 4," in Odes, trans. D. A. Svarlien (1990). Available from Perseus Digital Library, perseus.tufts.edu.
10. Heather L. Reid, "Sport, Philosophy, and the Quest for Knowledge," Journal of the Philosophy of Sport (2009): 45; hereafter abbreviated Reid. She argues that Hellenic athletic contests were "distinctive" because "knowledge-seeking rather than presumption-affirming" (p. 41). So, Socrates's or Plato's redirection of the language of athletics to the sphere of philosophy fits an epistemological dialogue like the Theaetetus.
11. Richard Patterson, "Philosophos Agonistes: Imagery and Moral Psychology in Plato's Republic," Journal of the History of Philosophy (1997): 328; hereafter abbreviated Patterson.
12. Ugo Ziloli, "The Wooden Horse: The Cyrenaics in the Theaetetus," in The Platonic Art of Philosophy, ed. G. Boys-Stones, D. El Mur, C. Gill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 171.
13. Jacob Howland, The Paradox of Political Philosophy: Socrates' Philosophic Trial (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield: 1998), p. 42.
14. Hugh Benson was of great help in developing this reading.
15. David Sedley, "Plato's Theaetetus as an Ethical Dialogue," Ancient Models of Mind, ed. A. Nightingale and D. Sedley (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 69.
16. The connection between philosophers and gentlemen speaks to the educational system of Athens, but it is also mentioned in the Digression of the Theaetetus: though philosophers are portrayed as abstract and disinterested in petty matters like convincing a jury of someone's guilt or knowing how to cook, they do dress like gentlemen (175d7–176a2). [End Page 111]