Theseus by Plato

A note on the text

Theseus, as named for one of the protagonists of the dialogue, is a newly-discovered dialogue of Plato, in which Socrates encounters two new founders of “schools” in ancient Athens and converses with them on the nature of learning and education. Within it, Plato returns to themes of the nature of virtue and knowledge, as in his Meno and the Republic; in Theseus, Socrates appears to be critiquing two characters’ views. One of them, Piaget, appears to possess what might be described in modern times as a “constructivist” view of education. The other, Dewey, appears to have adopted what might now be called a “behavioralist” view of education. Like most Socratic dialogues, the subtleties of each position are not explored in-depth, but the dialogue provides Socrates an opportunity to explore, though question and answer, his perspective on the topic of education. Plato likely discarded with work as being a bit heavy-handed. It was, likely, written in a pre-doctoral phase of his career. The text was discovered and translated by the author of this site.


Socrates leaves the Agora to examine the establishment of two new schools in Athens. Theseus stands in front of the two new schools; his namesake founded Athens according to Athenian lore and he has known Socrates since his youth.

THESEUS: What’s new, Socrates, that you have left the Agora, to attend to matters outside of the city?

SOCRATES: I have heard tell of new schools being set up on the hill and that the temples to their gods were so remarkable that I had to see it for myself. I imagine that some of these new teachers may create a school as wise and lasting Athens itself.

THESEUS: Yes. Piaget’s temple to Bacchus is quite impressive. One might say that it is as disordered as Dewey’s is ordered.

SOCRATES: You may have heard, Theseus, that the oracle had once deemed me the wisest of men. I have lived my life seeking to either prove or disprove this thought for, though I cannot find any man wiser than myself, I cannot find anyone who can claim to be wise. I thought that, if any were wise, it would be those people who claim to teach.

THESEUS: I wish to participate in this conversation with you, Socrates, as I have a great interest in understanding what a thing teaching is, and how it is done, and how knowledge is acquired.

Piaget approaches Socrates and Theseus, having overhead the conversation. He is dressed in colorful, though mismatching clothing and seems to have the aspect of a man who cares little for conventional thinking.

PIAGET: Well, Socrates, I cannot claim to have heard such a message from the Oracle, but as they say “each to his own eyes”. I have seen no man full of wisdom, either and — I mean it with no respect — inclusive of you as well.

SOCRATES: By the dog, Piaget, you do speak honestly. I wish you would teach me to speak so forthrightly since I often tremble lest my attempts to speak about virtue lead other men astray.

PIAGET: Can there be anything but honesty? Nor do I acknowledge that any man can teach.

SOCRATES: A strange school you have, Gagne, in which teachers do not teach and students do not learn and in which honesty is a thing that can be spoken but not known.

PIAGET: Socrates, I have heard tell that you were a wily one, always twisting words for your own benefit. I never once said that students do not learn. I simply said that teachers do not teach. Do you see the clouds above? Is there any imagery you detect?

SOCRATES: Poor old Aristophanes once wrote a play that claimed that I lived in the clouds. Even so, I prefer to look above the clouds rather than at the clouds. Let me see what I see — ah. I see the shape of a shield.

PIAGET: Ah, but to me, that is a plate; and who are you to argue with me? In this way, Socrates, I cannot call myself a teacher though I can say that my school as students. I may direct their eyes, but they construct the meaning.

Piaget turned as if to go.

SOCRATES: Piaget! To be leaving so soon, as if the conversation had been resolved and we had each run the marathon and arrived in Athens, breathless, with news of a great victory!

PIAGET: This shows how little you know; we cannot run the same marathon, nor can we conclude that there is a great victory, for what may be a victory for you may be a defeat for you.

SOCRATES: But let us please our friend Aristophanes and return to the clouds. Will you not speak with me?


SOCRATES: You say that, like the cloud, learning may take different forms for one person and different forms for another.

PIAGET: Not just different forms, Socrates, but different objects and we cannot know those objects, nor whether we speak of the same thing. Thus I, like you, agree that we cannot properly be said to teach one another.

SOCRATES: Piaget, you must be making fun of me, to claim that we agree in any respect on the education of ones’ soul.

PIAGET: And how would that be, Socrates?

SOCRATES: You attribute to me too little and too much. I would claim to know little, but I know that there is a difference between opinion and knowledge and that knowledge can be possessed by the hearer, though I do not claim that I can give it to them. Ah, here is Meno — Meno, do you recall the slave-boy we questioned, not long ago?

MENO: I do. By the gods, I did not know that a slave could be taught to double the area of a square.

SOCRATES: Meno, you mock me. If you will recall, I spoke with the boy, but he did not know anything about the hypotenuse of a triangle, or the area of a square, or anything like that. Nor did I teach him, as you well recall. He merely recollected what he already knew. I asked him questions, he answered the questions, and he solved the puzzle for himself. This process of asking questions some might call “elenchus”.

In this respect, Piaget, I agree that one cannot teach. At no point did I put knowledge in him; nor do I make claims to be a teacher. I cannot put sight into the eyes of a blind man; a man can, however, direct another man who is in the darkness into the realm of light, though I do not claim wisdom.

PIAGET: So you agree that you cannot put knowledge in the minds of a student?

SOCRATES: Of course, Piaget. Can you reach into the mind of another person and place a picture of a square that doubles the area of another square there? But I do claim that there is definitive knowledge.

PIAGET: And what might that be?

MENO: If I recall, it is “true opinion tethered by reason”.

SOCRATES: Just so, Meno. I had concerns for your mind, after our conversation, but it is clear that you are just as sharp as you have ever been. Piaget, can a circle be a square?

PIAGET: You are trying to trick me.

SOCRATES: Not so! I wish to test your thought that there is no certain knowledge and that what matters is our own thoughts, not their alignment with any truth. Can a circle be a square?

PIAGET: Fine. I will not fail to be consistent, as some of the people you speak with. A circle may be a square, for it depends on how each person defines circle and square.

SOCRATES: But, suppose, that you understand “circle” to mean “a geometric shape in which all points are equidistant from a center point” and square to mean “a geometric shape with four right angles and four equilateral sides”? Can a person believe both?

PIAGET: This is a foolish discussion.

SOCRATES: I claim that they cannot; this is a logical contradiction. Do you reject my claim?

PIAGET: I reject the claim that any individual’s viewpoint is above anyone else’s.

SOCRATES: But that is not the question, dear Piaget. This is a question of whether a mind should logically hold such a contradiction. To deny the law of non-contradiction would make you consistent, but you would deny the validity of my claim, thereby denying your claim that my experience is just as valid as your own; yet to accept it is to claim that there are universal truths that stand outside of our minds.

Dewey, a behavioralist, appears on the hill, following a nicely organized map to the location. He is neatly dressed in patrician garb and appears to, from his straight back and confident bearing, demonstrate considerable confidence in himself. Piaget sighs at the sight of Dewey but appears to be relieved that his conversation with Socrates has been avoided.

DEWEY: Ah, Piaget, you old fool. And Socrates, you sophist! Piaget, have you made your students more silly with your claim that nothing is true and drawn Socrates into your fold? Socrates, have you formed such alliances by arguing that all are equal in the pursuit of knowledge, rather than acknowledging the elevated place of teachers? Come, Socrates, learn from me and I will teach what you wish. I will make you wise. Be warned, however — I will not be fooled by your silly questions, nor your attempts to teach me.

SOCRATES: Dewey, I can see that you are as friendly as your reputation; Piaget, here, seems eager to spend time in your company! Are you telling me that you possess the wisdom that I seek? I do not seek to teach anyone, for I have no claims to wisdom.

DEWEY: Oh, the classic Socratic irony. Yes, I do possess and would teach it to you, unlike you and this fool Piaget who claim that nothing can be taught.

SOCRATES: Tell me, Dewey. What is truth?

DEWEY: Truth is what is possessed by the teacher, not the student; truth is what can be observed in the world and nothing else.

SOCRATES: You must be making fun of me, Dewey.

DEWEY: Why do you say that?

SOCRATES: Because I cannot see your thoughts and so your words compel me to believe that you have thoughts.

DEWEY: Go ahead, laugh, Socrates. Have yourself a fun time.

SOCRATES: But do you deny the existence of thought, which cannot be observed?

DEWEY: It is clear that you do not wish to learn from me. I will not waste my time on you Socrates, playing games. It would take me many days, training you with my words to gain knowledge in the same way that one swats a dog on the nose to train it to relieve itself outside. I have not the time; nor, do you have the money, as you are as famous for your bare feet as you are your bare head.

Dewey leaves. Piaget slumps off.

THESEUS: What, then, do you believe, Socrates, about education?

SOCRATES: I know very little, but I suspect — with good reason — that, as I once told your friend Glaucon, that education is not like putting sight into the eyes of a blind man. Instead, education is like guiding a man with sight from darkness into the light. The best thing for men, I think, is to have conversations like these, about the nature of the true and the good.

And I do believe there is a true and a good and that we may participate in them through reason. As I said to Glaucon and Meno may recall, I am not concerned as much with the things that are in the state of becoming — that is, the shadowed things around us — as the thing itself. That is, I wish to know what virtue, for example, is apart from the various actions that we call virtuous. That thing in itself is independent of the world as we see it and, should I know that, well, then I would truly know something.

THESEUS: But what benefit, Socrates, does this bring to the city? That is, should you found a school, how would this method help the hearers?

SOCRATES: Theseus, you should know better than to think that I would found a school. Even now, you must be aware Meletus slanders me about this. But I have never accepted money from anyone; nor is money or practicality chief of my concerns.

However, the benefits to the city would be numerous, should elenchus and methods be adopted. First, a learner finds truth for himself. Thus, the knowledge is his own rather something owned by another.

Second, as I have said, my method does not separate teacher from student, for we all must discover truth together. As a result, my school — though I deny having one — would encourage activity and reflection rather than the passivity of Dewey’s school.

Third, though I repeat myself, the ultimate destination of our reasoning is truth. As a result, despite what some might claim, doubt is not the ultimate end of my method; rather, it is confidence that true opinion is tethered by reason.

Lastly, though I again make no claim to a teacher, I must confess that this method would improve the youth of the city that would receive it, for my method would train the youth to always ask questions of the world and seek answers that are alignment with truth. Thus, students of this school would be philosophers or lovers of wisdom. What other thing in the world, my dear Theseus, is there better to love?

THESEUS: Would you found this school Socrates? Could you do so? For it seems to me that the polis could benefit from this. Don’t all who are equal in Athens through birth or the gaining of citizenship, have a claim to the vote? Do they not argue, incessantly, in gatherings about the future of Athens and are they not now, even as we speak, being trained by sophists to deceive and win arguments through deception rather than persuasion?

SOCRATES: I could not, Theseus, nor would I want to. Students must come to the truth. If anyone could teach and place knowledge in another’s mind, they would be a god, capable of making and unmaking at will. At best, we are midwives of the truth, guiding and questioning others as they encounter the thing-in-itself themselves. Until I find someone wiser than myself or die, I will continue to view myself as a midwife for truth, always asking questions and following reason toward truth itself. I will not found a school but will continue to speak with anyone who enters my path, testing and seeing if they have the wisdom that I seek.


Boghossian, P. (2006). Behaviorism, constructivism, and Socratic pedagogy. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 38(6).

Nola, R. (1998). Constructivism in science and science education: A philosophical critique. In M. R. Matthews (Ed.), Constructivism in Science Education (pp. 31–59).

Plato. (2002). Five dialogues (2nd ed.; G. M. A. Grube, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co.

Plato. (2000). The republic (G. R. F. Ferrari, Ed.; T. Griffith, Trans.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Consider the Lily’s End

Consider the ends, we’re told — when the ends are as dim as our beginnings. We do not know about our birth; nor will we know much about our death.

Contemplation of death is a gift life gives us. Fear of death — that is a great danger that can only be overcome by contemplation… and death.

When I was younger, and death seemed distant, it seemed like a small bird in a cage, fluttering against its wire walls. Now that I am older, death seems more like an insolent, angry child — and I am a small bird in the narrow wire cage.

“Once, there was a boy who lived on the edge of a forest and on the edge of a town. His parents were cruel because they were afraid; they could not keep him safe because they were afraid they could not keep him safe. And so they boy grew up alone and afraid…”

Death is like a gnarled tree that groans and lows across a night-clad fen, except that it travels with us and we cannot leave it for a dry road and smiling town.

When the gods could not save a mortal, they would transform them into an olive tree, a pine tree, or an iris. When we cannot save ourselves, we transform ourselves into stones — our legs still and harden and our faces still. Much better to be a plant than a stone; better still to live.

When Abraham saw that Sodom was to be destroyed, he pleaded with the Lord: “If there are five good men in the city, save it!” I must plead only for myself. And yet, so often, my pleas seem too weak.

My children often ask about salvation and their new bodies. They wonder what their new bodies will look like. They remind me: do not neglect your body. It, too, is a gift. Nor is it something external to you — that way is the way of the Gnostics. You are your body; to be bodiless is to be something less than what you are, a wraith hungering for substance. That is why salvation is not salvation from a body but to a body and from an earth to a new earth. We are not spirits trapped in a body; we are spirit and body, spun together by the master weaver, torn beyond immediate repair, leading us to conclude that the body is foreign and the spirit is all — and yet, someday, the threads will be respun and there will be unity, again, and what a weaving that will be.

“Hello, friend. What is your teleology?”

“I do not know, except in the vaguest sense — what is yours?”

Beliefs like Helium Balloons

In one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates makes a distinction between knowledge and true opinion. The distinction, he says, is that true opinion is accidental — whereas knowledge is opinion tethered by reason.

What’s the difference, you ask? And why does it matter? And how many different shades of color are there in a night rainbow?

I have no answer for the last question; however, I can offer my knowledge of the first two.

Consider two people:

  1. A consummate guesser, skilled at rolling the dice, who guesses the correct number on the first try and who acts utterly confident in his opinion.
  2. A typical digital denizen who he has digitalized his mind and offloaded much of the burden of remembering information to the internet. When we ask questions like, “How many different shades of color are there in a night rainbow?” He’s able to immediately access that information with a quick Google search. Ah ha! He’s found the answer and says, “Now I know.”

Who is superior? We would say, probably, the second person — he has knowledge of the fact of the matter whereas the first person has at best an opinion and at worst a correct guess.

But suppose another person comes along and says, “Mr. Digital Denizen: can you explain to me why you believe that the night rainbow has that many shades of color? Why should I believe you?” Suppose, too, he went to the consummate guesser and asked the same question. Who would have an answer? Suppose, too, that this person is a clever person, fully capable of making an argument against the number that the two give. Don’t you suppose that they would be frustrated and confused?1

That’s because, as far as Socrates would be concerned, both of them have nothing but true opinion — it just so happens that their knowledge is correct but they have no idea why it is correct. And when we don’t know why something is correct, we lack the ability to defend the truth — even if we have it.

Socrates, on the other hand, defined knowledge as true opinion tethered by reason. Beliefs are like balloons; they often float away and, when challenged, make our voices squeak and pop like a chipmunk.2 What is the reason for Socrates? That’s an entirely different beast for an entirely different time — but it seems to have something to do with connecting known objects of knowledge together in ways that produce clear, distinct, and consistent conclusions.

So why does it matter? It doesn’t unless you like to be the kind of person who is tricked into believing that there are more or less colors in a night rainbow than there actually are. But if you want to want to stay grounded and tethered to the truth, put down your cell phone: memorize facts and figures and know the arguments, not simply the conclusions.

The Inscrutable Loneliness of Belonging

Philosophical Fragments

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I was a teenager when I first experienced loneliness. I can’t recall the precise moment — but I have a hazy impression of it, like a meaningful place visited once, all blushes of color with no distinct lines. The thing of it was that I wasn’t alone; I could feel the pulse of other people in the room, I could hear the rumble of their voices, I could sense the air shift as they slipped around me… but more than anything, I could feel that I was alone.

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that hell is other people. We may also say that loneliness is other people.

When we speak of being lonely, we do not mean that we are alone; we mean that we have no unity — we mean that we, ourselves, are separated from ourselves. When I was a child, I was never alone. My books kept me company and the universe thrummed with life and begged for my companionship. When I was with friends, we joined together and danced in the brightness of the sun.

Children are like Ulysses. They are “a part of all that they have met” and cannot be alone until they “rest from travel”. Like the “man of many ways”, they take pleasure in their cleverness and creativity and little deceptions. Yet when ten, twenty years pass, when they arrive at what is called home, the world dims and they can no longer find joy

Our friends have faces but no breath and no depth. We look at them through glossy windows that provide no insight into their souls.

“How are you today?”

“Which you do you refer to, sir? Of which fragment do you speak?”

We think that technology connects us; we likely thought that when the first wheel was invented or when the first human leapt upon the horse’s shaggy back. Then, that first man lied to himself and said, “I can travel long distances with speed. I can move far away from others — and still be connected.”

Under Construction

He had not noticed the sign earlier that day — the one that read “road closed, under construction”. He wondered at that but didn’t wonder too much. A man drives up and down the same road for the majority of his life and he begins to not see it. Though, still, it seemed strange — it was his street. He should have seen the problem with the road. He should have noticed the new bumps and lumps, should have smelled the curling asphalt in the summer.

But it was another thing to deal with in a day full of strange things. He’d just been fired. His boss cited the economy, but he knew better. There’d been hints here and there throughout the last month. People in his department being released, subtle conversations that no one seemed to think he noticed. When he was called into his boss’s office, she said to him, “I’m sorry. We’re not seeing the kind of performance that we’re hoping for out of you.”

He didn’t have much to say about that. So he didn’t respond. He grabbed his coat, a few things from his desk, and left the building.

There didn’t seem to be much construction on the road, at least nothing that he noticed. He realized that this might be the case, that the construction might be down the road but not visible right now but the absence of visible construction infuriated him for some reason.

He kept driving and kept thinking. He felt the tension throughout his body — what would he tell his wife, his family, the ones that seemed to think that he had it all together? He knew that he wasn’t going into that career again — not that, not that dog-eat-dog self-hating monster that consumed him for the last fifteen year. And he wasn’t sure who would understand and who would look at him with disgust.

He arrived, parked, and walked through the double-front doors that his wife had workers install shortly after they bought the house.

“Why didn’t you have this done when we bought the house,” he asked her at the time. “The best time to do the work is before we’ve moved in.” But she just shrugged.

“A house is always a work in progress,” she responded.

He took a deep breath at the entrance and went on in. His wife was in the living room, reading a book. “How was your day?” she said. “You’re home early.”

He glanced out of the window and saw the way that the snow clung to the road and then blew away, revealing the cracked and wrinkled asphalt underneath. A few yellow and orange crews wandered up the street, setting up signs and barriers that prevented others from getting in. The road needed work, he thought. Seems time for it to be closed.

“It took longer to get home. The road’s closed,” he said. “It’s under construction.”

In Praise of Underachievers

An Aesthete’s Ode

I’ve talked with numerous students over the years. There are the students who set out to achieve and achieve; those that do not set out to achieve and succeed in not achieving; and those that set out to achieve but underachieve.

It’s the latter class that I have a particular affinity for, as I pity the achievers: what pleasure is life if each desire is satiated? – infinite donuts provides a diminishing return. I pity “ unachievers” as well, since a lack of desire is worse than a satisfaction that blunts the senses.

But the underachievers – ah, the underachievers, the ones who have lofty goals but fail to achieve them or have great potential but fail to live up to it – oh, those I love. What can be more lovely that never achieving the prize? It will forever be beyond reach, never changing, always tantantalizing, always desirable. It will never lose its luster as a result of possession – owning will never diminish its value. It will always be perfect, pristine, lovely.

How I love the underachievers. They, perhaps, are closer than anyone to the true form of beauty – because they never have it to discover its flaws. It will remain perfect forever.

How I love the underachievers. Always desiring, always moving, roaming the sallow plains in search of a prey that cannot be found:

 Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed 
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu; 
And, happy melodist, unwearied, 
         For ever piping songs for ever new; 
More happy love! more happy, happy love! 
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, 
                For ever panting, and for ever young; 
All breathing human passion far above, 
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, 
                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue. 

John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

Religion: Me or Us?

Assessing William James’ Definition of Religion

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

-William James, The Variety of Religious Experiences

Is this a good definition of religion? In some respects: a mark of a good definition is to limit the class of things as much as possible. In classic logic, the definition uses a genus and specific difference. The genus is the broad class of things an item belongs to (a banana, for example, is a fruit) and the specific difference is what separates the item from the genus (i.e. being long, yellow, with a soft, sweet pulp). “Feelings, acts, and experiences” seems to be the genus; “of solitary men insofar as they relate to the divine” seems to be the specific difference. As a definition, pure and simple, it is well constructed. It describes a distinctive kind of feeling and act. But as a definition of religion? It seems insufficient and a distinctly individualistic view (I’m inclined to say “distinctly American”).

As Christians know, we are called to be part of a “body”. Insofar as we are not a part, we are not part of Christendom. Islam, too, exists in the context. With the exception of the rare mystics, it is practiced corporately: pray together, worship together, etc. And yet individuals tend to be called to repentance, not church bodies. Our language in service is of individualism and we live and breathe as if the church is unnecessary. In America, there are a shocking number of people who consider themselves Christian but are not regular attendees

I don’t know whether it is the influence of James that has led us to understand religion as radically individualist or whether radical individualism has led us to accept James’ definition. Certainly, the claim that “Christianity isn’t a religion — it’s a relationship” fits William James’ definition by excluding ritual, community, and doctrine and making it about a solitary person’s experience in relationship to the divine.

If we have accepted James’ definition as the definition of religion, however, it is because we are poor readers: James’ book was called the Varieties of Religious Experiences; he was interested in what can be loosely called “mystical” experiences. He was not interested in formal religion and used this “arbitrary” definition for his book. We’d do well to make sure our definitions are clear, precise – and understood.

What do you think? Is his definition a good one?

We’re so Ugly

If only we’d all believe it.

I was a teenager when the grunge movement hit its stride. And I miss it. Not so much the music, as such, but the attitude that stands against the modern self-righteousness and presents a clear view of human nature:

Humans are terrible and that includes me.

Take Nirvana, for instance, and their song “Lithium”. Here’s the verse:

I’m so happy ’cause today I found my friends
They’re in my head
I’m so ugly, that’s okay, ’cause so are you
We broke our mirrors
Sunday mornin’ is everyday for all I care
And I’m not scared
Light my candles in a daze ’cause I’ve found God

Note the universal “we” in the chorus and the theme that the “ugliness” extends to both the singer and you. There’s a dual movement to the lyrics. We read him as addressing ourselves as the listener but he’s addressing the friends in his head. Their ugliness is a manifestation of his own ugliness. Unlike twice-baked potatoes which are twice tasty, he’s twice ugly. This ugliness in connection to “Sunday morning'” and “God” point toward a sort of secular doctrine of original sin: “All are fallen and have no hope of glory.”

The lyrics are wonderful because they are both universal and particular, remind us that we’re all in the same boat but “I” am paradoxically worse than you. While depressing, they’re at least inclusive. But when we examine the state of popular thinking on human nature, we reach a claim that looks something like this:

“You are fallen and can only hope to achieve glory by being like me.”

Consider the various hashtag movements and populist slogans. Don’t you get a sense that the ego in the modern world has found its perfection? I don’t want to call out particular movements; far more significant is the underlying thinking that penetrates all areas of society and promises to fragment us even more. As we’ve seen over the last few years, movements come and go — we’ve seen the Tea Party and  Black Lives Matter movements peak and decline. I’m more interested in their attitudes and actions over time. 

It seems to me that new social religions emerge with religious leaders and purification rituals that use hashtags as the blood and body and group protests as a church. These new groups define themselves in terms of opposition to others in terms of ritual and word though perhaps not in their written doctrine. Like most religions, there is a significant gap between intellectual belief and individual passions.

Our new tribalism is exclusive, fervent, and exclusive.  It proclaims that we are holy and you are sinful. But until we can say that we all are ugly, I don’t see much hope for a beautiful world.