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.
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