Saturday, July 19, 2014

Beowulf; and J. R. R. Tolkien, "Sellic Spell"


Opening Passage: From Beowulf:

Lo! the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valour. Oft Scyld Scefing robbed the hosts of foemen, many peoples, of the seats where they drank their mead, laid fear upon men, he who first was found forlorn; comfort for that he lived to know, mighty grew under heaven, throve in honour, until all that dwelt nigh about, over the sea where the whale rides, must hearken to him and yield him tribute -- a good king was he! (p. 13)

From "Sellic Spell":

Once upon a time there was a King in the North of the world who had an only daughter, and in his house there was a young lad who was not like the others. One day some huntsmen had come upon a great bear in the mountains. They tracked him to his lair and killed him, and in his den they found a man-child. They marvelled much, for it was a fine child, about three years old, and in good health, but it could speak no words. It seemed to the huntsmen that it must have been fostered by the bears, for it growled like a cub. (p. 360)

Summary: If we ask what Beowulf is about, it is easy to focus on the most vivid scenes, on, for instance, Beowulf and Grendel. But if we do that, it is difficult to grasp a unified thread in the story. I think that the poet, however, has told us what Beowulf is about in his very first sentence: Danish kings. This is a poem about kingship: about its nobility, its glory, its sorrows, its responsibilities, its demands. Beowulf is in this sense not so much the main character as the representative character. And once one realizes this, one discovers that the poem goes out of its way to make this clear. We begin not with Beowulf himself but with Danish kings, and slowly focus in on Hrothgar, a wise king with a seemingly insoluble problem. Only then do we find Beowulf. Slowly we learn about him, as the poet builds up the picture of a king-in-making -- and Hrothgar himself at one point highlights it, and gives advice on kingship. Then Beowulf becomes king, and eventually dies a kingly death and is given a kingly burial.

Even the monsters Beowulf fights reflect on this theme. Grendel and his mother, scions of wandering Cain, the most monstrous summation of what it is to be an outlaw, are as it were the negative counterparts of Beowulf-as-champion, Beowulf as having the potential of kingship, and Beowulf in fighting them returns the land to law and order. The dragon, on the other hand, is the negative counterpart of Beowulf-as-king. We tend to think of hoarding treasure as just a sort of random thing dragons do; but in this tale, hoarding is what a dragon is. A dragon is an ungenerous king. He hoards without giving benefit; he hoards in such a way that if he cannot have his treasure, he will guarantee that no one has it; his hoarding is so great that in return for the theft of a drinking cup he will destroy an entire kingdom. But the purpose of a king is not to hoard, but to give; generosity is the heart of kingship.

It is a stable characteristic of this Anglo-Saxon ideal, and shared by all Nordic storytelling, that greatness, and virtue, and nobility are all taken to be not abstractions but highly concrete and material. The poet endlessly talks about material wealth -- gold, treasures, rings, swords, cups, plates, gilded benches in golden halls. It is the language in which he speaks of kingship, of heroism, of excellence. To be great is to be worthy of gold and silver and fine things. But while it is a very material view, it is not a very materialistic view, because none of this wealth is seen as a private thing. One's possession of wealth, unless one is a thief, arises from the good one does to the whole people. One's excellence as a champion is not winning wealth for oneself but for all. One's glory as a king is pouring forth treasure to those who merit it. We see this in Beowulf's death. He asks to see the dragon's treasure, all the fine wealth he has won, to ease his death; but it is not the gold itself that matters to him. He thanks God for the treasure and commands, as his last command, that it be used for the needs of the people. That seems fitting enough to us; but we, I think, have difficulty seeing it for what it really is. This is not some extraordinary fit of generosity, but the practical work of the king, the ordinary, everyday, mundane, almost pedestrian activity of a sovereign ruler. What is notable is not that this is above and beyond the call of duty; it is that Beowulf does his duty as king to the very end. And after his end, his people express their devotion to him in the same material way -- but, again, their material expression of respect for a true king is infinitely removed from anything materialistic.

Tolkien's translation is very good, but reading a number of reviews of it, I can see that people don't grasp the point of it. It was not made to present the story of Beowulf, or to give a poetic representation analogous to its original; it was made to assist in understanding the original poem, designed to draw out things that could otherwise be easily overlooked. It is an instrument serving an end beyond itself. As such it is rather different from almost any other translation available. It thus fits very well with the extensive commentary from Tolkien's lectures on Beowulf and also the short story, "Sellic Spell".

"Sellic Spell" is worth reading on its own; he presents a Beowulfian fairy tale or folk-story. But it, too, was an instrument, something written with a purpose beyond itself: by means of it, Tolkien provides a contrast by which certain features of Beowulf can be better understood. The poem is an intersection of fairy tale and historical legend, and "Sellic Spell" is Tolkien's attempt to draw out, in a coherent way, something like the purely fairy tale aspect of it, to show what kind of thing you might get if you looked beyond the historic/heroic aspect of the tale to the folktale-structures that were adapted to historical events (or to which historical tales were adapted). It holds up well enough on its own -- it deserves to take its place among classic fairy tales -- but it, too, is an instrument for understanding Beowulf.

Thus both the translation and the fairy tale adaptation foil attempts to stop at themselves. They interfere with the temptation to think that in reading a translation, or an adaptation, we in some sense have the original. They point beyond themselves, and by the very way they work, by their very purpose, they insist that you look beyond them, and see the wonder of Beowulf itself, even if you do so in the translation, or the adaptation, as in mirror darkly.

Favorite Passage:

Then was the keeper of the barrow swollen with wrath, purposing, fell beast, with fire to avenge his precious drinking-vessel. Now was the day faded to the serpent's joy. No longer would he tarry on the mountain-side, but went blazing forth, sped with fire. Terrible for the people in that land was the beginning (of that war), even as swift and bitter came its end upon their lord and patron. Now the invader did begin to spew forth glowing fires and set ablaze the shining halls -- the light of the burning leapt forth to the woe of the men. No creature there did that fell winger of the air purpose to leave alive. Wide might it be seen how the serpent went to war, the malice of that fall oppressor, from near and far be seen how that destroyer in battle pursued and humbled the people of the Geats. Back to his Hoard he sped to his dark hall ere the time of day. He had wrapped the dwellers in the land in flame, in fire and burning; he trusted in his barrow, in its wall and his own warlike might, and his trust cheated him. (pp. 80-81)

Recommendation: Highly recommended all, Beowulf and Tolkien's translation of it and "Sellic Spell"; but it is important to remember that the latter two aren't intended to stand on their own, but to contribute to the understanding of how the original works.

Two New Poem Drafts


Long with razored edge the Light of Battle
gleams in flawless line and glints with stars;
he bears it on his breast, his hands upon it,
unsheathed, the proudest sword, of biting steel.
Now rest where legends dream, O blade,
and glow with sunlike flame upon this night,
when mighty war-maids lift on glory's threads
the soul of fallen slain, and hero make;
then guide the barge below the salted wave
and mark a hero's grave with memory.

Queen of Martyrs

O Queen of martyrs, fortitude
upon your brow has wreathed its light
in tears, in ache, in solitude,
in prayers whispered in the night;
the sword has pierced your heart, your soul,
your spirit flawless flees in sigh:
each nail, the spear, they take their toll
as on the Cross your glory dies.

O Queen of heaven, pray for me,
that with your heart my heart should hold
in life, in truth, in charity,
your strength, through prayer, pure and bold.
Who will not die for virtue's sake,
who will not suffer for the good,
has failed; and none to heaven wake
save those with hearts on Cross of wood.

Friday, July 18, 2014


Except for in the nineteenth century, no one has proposed that Euthyphro is anything other than Plato's; and even then, very few did, and the case for its inauthenticity was never regarded as very strong. Schleiermacher famously had a very low opinion of the dialogue -- no progression of ideas, limited object. He only accepted it as authentic on the bare ground that it actually fit very well into his account of the development of Plato's ideas. I think it's safe to say that this view is not generally accepted; the dialogue is more often regarded as an elegant dialogue with something important to say -- although I'm not sure that people who regard it this way usually do so with an interpretation that makes it any less simplistic than Schleiermacher thought it. There is more to this little dialogue, I think, than has yet been uncovered.

You can read Euthyphro in English at the Perseus Project and in French at Wikisource.

The Characters

Pretty much everything we know about Euthyphro comes from this dialogue (he is also mentioned in Cratylus, but the mentions don't obviously add anything to what we learn here). He is a mantis, which might variously be translated as a diviner, seer, soothsayer, or prophet.


The Plot

The archon basilieus, or king archon, was in Socrates' day a yearly position, primarily concerned with organizing religious rites. He oversaw certain serious cases involving impiety. Anyone could bring a charge before the court of the king archon, who would then determine whether the suit were legally proper, and schedule an anakrisis (literally, interrogation) as a preliminary hearing. At the end, formal charges would be drawn up, and a trial (krisis) scheduled. The dialogue opens at the Stoa Basileus, or porch of the king archon, as Socrates is going to the anakrisis for Meletus's charges of impiety and corrupting the youth.

Euthyphro opens the dialogue by expressing surprise at finding Socrates at the stoa of the archon basileus. Socrates explains that he is here because Meletus laid an indictment against him. Euthyphro doesn't know who Meletus is. Socrates says that he thinks Meletus must be wise, since he knows how the youth are corrupted, and he is the only politician beginning in the right way, since he cares for the youth of the city in order to make them good. If he carries on as he has begun, he will greatly benefit the city. Euthyphro replies that it seems to him that Meletus has instead begun by injuring the city, and asks in what way Meletus claims Socrates corrupts the youth. Socrates replies that he claims that Socrates makes new gods and does not worship the old ones.

Euthyphro responds that it is because of Socrates' daimonion, and sympathizes since he has had people laugh at him for talking about divine things and foretelling the future in the Assembly, saying that one must fight them closely. Socrates says that if it were only laughter, this would be insignificant; but he fears that they are in earnest. Euthyphro says that perhaps Socrates will be as successful as Euthyphro thinks he will in his own. This gets them talking about Euthyphro's case, in which he is prosecuting his father for impiety, and Socrates is surprised, since prosecuting one's own father would ordinarily be considered impious. They then discuss the nature of the pious (hosios) and the impious (anosios). Euthyphro's proposals turn out to have problems, so that they end up circling around, and Socrates says that they must keep going until it's sorted out. But Euthyphro says he has to go, and Socrates ends with the comment:

What a thing to do, my friend! By going you have cast me down from a great hope I had, that I would learn from you the nature of the pious and the impious and so escape Meletus' indictment by showing him that I had acquired wisdom in divine matters from Euthyphro, and my ignorance would no longer cause me to be careless and inventive about such things, and that I would be better for the rest of my life. (15e-16a)

  General Comments on the Plot

It is worth noting that while Euthyphro is prosecuting, and Socrates defending, impiety charges, the charges in each case would have been very different. Euthyphro's charge against his father is an oral charge, for private crimes, and (as Socrates notes to him) usually only allowed for relatives of the victim; the charge Socrates is facing is a written charge, suggesting that the offense is against the city itself, and as such could be brought by any citizen. Murder was a religious crime; a fact often forgotten when people discuss what the dialogue says about impiety.

Euthyphro's case is remarkably complicated. His family had a farm at Naxos. The island of Naxos was conquered territory (it had been crushed by Athens for trying to leave the Delian League), and one way in which the Athenians handled conquered territory was to portion out land grants from the territory to Athenian citizens to colonize it (in exchange, the territory's tribute to Athens was reduced); this made the territory what was called a 'cleruchy'. The cleruchy at Naxos ended in 404, at least five years earlier, so the crime Euthyphro is prosecuting is already five years old. A drunken laborer killed a house slave; Euthyphro's father bound the murderer and put him in a ditch, then sent to Athens for information on how to handle the situation. However, the laborer in the ditch, not given any amenities, died before any message came back from Athens. Euthyphro is prosecuting his father for murdering the laborer. One puzzle presents itself immediately: the advice Euthyphro's father needed was religious advice; so why didn't he get it from Euthyphro? He might not have been the right kind of authority -- Euthyphro's father sent for the advice of an exegete, which as far as we can tell would have been someone specializing in religious law, and there's no indication that Euthyphro had that kind of expertise. The fact that Euthyphro must have spent a good part of his life at Naxos, however, explains why he can both be an Athenian citizen (he has spoken in the Athenian assembly) and why Socrates always speaks of 'the Athenians' as if Euthyphro weren't one of them.

Euthyphro clearly knows Socrates well; he recognizes Socrates on sight, knows that he spends much of his time at the Lyceum, and knows that Socrates claims to have a divine sign, his daemon or daimonion. Euthyphro also regards this divine sign as indicating a common ground with Socrates: in his mind, Socrates and he are alike. This is not unreasonable, nor does this appear to be (as some commentators seem to suggest) a bit of irony: both Plato (Apology 40a, Phaedrus 242b-c) and Xenophon (Memorabilia 1.1.3) treat Socrates' divine sign as equivalent to divination or the work of a mantis, although it is mantic in a peculiar way (it is worth also remembering that Plato depicts Socrates as having premonitory dreams and both Plato and Xenophon take Socrates to be supported by the oracle at Delphi). When we are introduced to Euthyphro as a mantis, it is absolutely essential to not to read back modern ideas of quackery or superstition into this; ancient Greeks often took omens very seriously in political and military matters (cp. Nicias in Laches), and manteis had a generally respected role in their society, although there is certainly evidence that not everyone gave them the same credit (e.g., Laches in Laches). Why then do people laugh at Euthyphro? Perhaps a comment by Thucydides (History 8.1.1) might indicate it; he notes that after the Syracusan disaster, the Athenians became angry at interpreters of oracles and manteis, whom they blamed for misleading them as to the viability of the expedition. The intervening fifteen years were not especially shining for Athens, and there's some reason to think that the reputation of diviners recovered only very slowly after that (although it did recover).

I find that Euthyphro is often treated as if he were either stern and close-minded or fanatical; but there is no indication at all in the dialogue of either. He is very sympathetic to Socrates -- perhaps this is partly politeness, but there is no question that he expresses clear sympathy and support for Socrates. He even seems to joke around with Socrates at one point (when talking about Daedelus). He does hurry away at the end, but we do not actually know the reason why. It could be, as usually assumed, that he was annoyed or angry; but since he quite clearly hadn't been originally planning to have an extended philosophical discussion on the nature of piety as he went about his business, it could equally well be anything else. (It's worth pointing out as well something that occasionally gets noted by commentators: given that Euthyphro's motive for the suit seems to be to purify himself from ritual pollution, we can't even be sure that Euthyphro expected or even wanted his father to be convicted, since from his perspective simply bringing the matter to the notice of the proper court may be enough.)

The Thought

Part of the significance of the discussion is that Euthyphro is actually someone whose 'career', as we would call it, concerns divine things, and who has a reputation for devoting himself to these things, even if he does get laughed at for it; if anyone has a background that promises insight into what piety is, he certainly does. Meletus, who is only an obscure poet whose name Euthyphro doesn't even recognize (and therefore who does not have a reputation for his insight into divine matters), is certainly not better placed than Euthyphro to understand piety and impiety. (Contrast this with Socrates; Euthyphro recognizes him personally, is astounded to find him on the porch of the king archon involved in an impiety suit, and immediately thinks the charges against him are absurd.) The dialogue is often treated as if it were intended to put the concept of piety itself into question, but the primary idea put into doubt is not piety but rather impersonal justice; the discussion of piety at least partly makes a point about how human beings can or should approach matters of justice. And what Euthyphro and Meletus both share is the attempt to go around charging people with impiety for abstract and general crimes rather than things that have been done to them personally. Piety itself survives unscathed, if not yet defined; it's not so clear that impersonal justice does.

The discussion of piety itself goes through several stages. Euthyphro begins by saying that the pious is to prosecute the wrongdoer, and for his own case he gives the divine precedent: Zeus bound Chronos, and Chronos castrated Ouranos, for unjust actions. Socrates, suggesting that his disinclination to believe such stories is a reason for his indictment, asks if Euthyphro really believes these stories of war among the gods, and Euthyphro replies that he does. (This links, I think, Euthyphro to Theaetetus and to Cratylus, and also sets up the obvious problem for the next suggested definition.)

Socrates remarks that Euthyphro has not actually given the idea/form (eidos) that everything pious shares. So Euthyphro tries again: "what is dear [prosphiles] to the gods is pious, what is not is impious"(7a). This idea of the pious as being what is lovely to the gods founders, however, on the fact that he just said that the gods disagreed.

This leads to the next idea, that "the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is the impious" (9e). This introduces the most famous passage in the dialogue, what is often known as the Euthyphro Dilemma: Is the pious lovely to the godsbecause it is pious, or is it pious because it is lovely to the gods? It is important to grasp, however, that Socrates does not at any point argue that the pious is not what is lovely to all the gods; what he argues is that Euthyphro in saying this has not told him what the being (ousios) of the pious is, but only an adventitious feature (pathos) or something that happens to it. So they are back at the beginning; and Euthyphro remarks that he can't tell Socrates what he thinks about the pious and the impious because any statement they put forward moves around rather than sitting still, and that it is Socrates who is doing it.

At this point, Socrates suggests a new starting point: "all that is pious is of necessity just" (11e), and from this they conclude that justice is the genus and piety the species (or part). (It is perhaps worth noting that this approach is reminiscent of the approach we'll see used more extensively in the Sophist and the Statesman.) This raises the question of which part it is, and Euthyphro suggests the next possibility: "the godly [eusebes] and pious is the part of the just that is concerned with the care [therapeia] of the gods, while that concerned with the care of men is the remaining part of justice" (12e). This obviously raises the question of what care is; in most cases it means to benefit and make better, but for a human being to try to make the gods better would obviously be impious. So in this case, care must be service/subordination [hyperetike] to the gods.

Socrates then asks the obvious question: what is the achievement at which service to the gods aims? Or in other words, what do the gods achieve through our service? Euthyphro replies that it is many fine things (polla kai kala), but, of course Socrates is not going to be put off by this, so Euthyphro says the pious is to say and do what pleases the gods in prayer (euchomenos) and sacrifice (thuos). Socrates points out that this means service is to give gifts and to beg, so it seems that piety is a kind of trade. But this runs right back to the problem: we seem to be saying that the pious is to benefit the gods by giving them something that they need and that therefore will make them better. Euthyphro, however, denies that it is a matter of benefiting the gods; what the gods receive are reverence (time), honor (gera), and gratitude/graciousness (charis). But, Socrates points out, this then means that the pious is what is lovely to the gods, and we have gone in a circle again.

And that is where it comes to an end. We perhaps have more than we might think. It is notable that the claim that the pious is the part of justice concerning the gods is never refuted (it is also a claim that Plato's Socrates makes elsewhere); Euthyphro's attempt in this direction fell apart solely through his understanding of 'care of the gods'. And recall the beginning -- Socrates praising Meletus, albeit ironically, for seeking to make young and old better. And recall exactly how it ends: Socrates says that if Euthyphro had taught him what piety is, he would live a better life for the rest of his life. I don't think these are just trimming. Plato generally doesn't do mere trimming; he does not just argue with his explicit statements but also with his insinuations. But even setting that general consideration aside, it seems unlikely to be an accident that Socrates emphasizes this idea at both the beginning and the end of the dialogue.


Quotations are from G. M. A. Grube's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., pp. 1-16.

Links of Note

* The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World is awesome. Want to know how long it takes for an ancient Roman to travel by oxcart from Damascus to Rome? This is the source to go to. (The answer, incidentally, is approximately 309 days; obviously an ancient Roman really wanting to go from Damascus to Rome would go by sea rather than by land where possible, and by foot rather than by oxcart, cutting the total trip across the Mediterranean to about a month.)

* Alicia Puglionesi had an interesting post on the shift away from amateur contributions to research in psychical research. There were analogous shifts in other fields of research, e.g., natural history, so studying it here potentially sheds light on a lot more than psychical research itself.

* Volume 4 of the Whewell Gazette is up, with lots of links on the history of science.

* "Renaissance Mathematicus" has a guest post by Melinda Baldwin on the history of the word 'scientist'. I happened to mention some of this history in passing when talking about the Google N-gram for the word 'scientist'; but there are lots of quirks in the history of the word that make it interesting.

* Sarah Emsley's Mansfield Park event is still going on.

* John Farrell talks about the influence of the Timaeus.

* Sr. Mary Melone was recently appointed the first woman rector of a Pontifical University.

* Catarina Dutilh Novaes has a good interview at 3 A.M.

* Philosophers' Carnival #165

* A bit of poetry reading:

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Idealist Materialist

Charlie Huenemann has a baffling post at "3 Quarks Daily" in which he presents a Berkeleian theory of external objects as if it were an alternative to Berkeley:

The more I have thought about it, the more I am drawn to an "obstaclean" theory of matter. To put the theory as simply as possible: matter is ultimately stuff that gets in our way. Material objects are obstacles, pure and simple. We might want this or that, and so we embark upon some plan, but then - wham! Something gets in our way. We didn't plan for that, and we certainly didn't want it. It's there independently, on its own.

Or, as Berkeley says (PHK 1.29):

But, whatever power I may have over my own thoughts, I find the ideas actually perceived by Sense have not a like dependence on my will. When in broad daylight I open my eyes, it is not in my power to choose whether I shall see or no, or to determine what particular objects shall present themselves to my view; and so likewise as to the hearing and other senses; the ideas imprinted on them are not creatures of my will.

And Huenemann again, on Berkeley:

He might insist that the obstacles are still just further ideas, but since they originate from some independent source that does not regard of our own wills and desires, they gain a "stand-alone" significance that marks them as material objects. He can insist upon their ideal nature all he likes, but if they are obstacles to me, they are material.

And Berkeley in response (3DHP, Dialogue 3):

But if by material substance is meant only sensible body—that which is seen and felt (and the unphilosophical part of the world, I dare say, mean no more)—then I am more certain of matter’s existence than you or any other philosopher pretend to be. If there be anything which makes the generality of mankind averse from the notions I espouse, it is a misapprehension that I deny the reality of sensible things.

And that Huenemann's 'materialism' is, indeed, a flat-out idealist theory, is clear enough:

According to the obstaclean theory, being material has more to do with the role a thing plays in our explanations than any "in itself" quality or feature. When something represents forces of brute contingency in our lives, that makes it material. This is a virtue of the theory, since no one has really been able to describe "matter in itself" to anyone's satisfaction.

Which is what Berkeley argued, and at great length; he just prefers to use other words than 'material' in order to avoid confusion. The only thing Huenemann gets out of not using 'idealism' to describe his 'obstaclean theory of matter' is the illusion of not having to provide a further explanation of the obstacle-properties of objects.

Into the Pale Depth of the Noon

by Archibald Lampman

From plains that reel to southward, dim,
The road runs by me white and bare;
Up the steep hill it seems to swim
Beyond, and melt into the glare.
Upward half-way, or it may be
Nearer the summit, slowly steals
A hay-cart, moving dustily
With idly clacking wheels.
By his cart's side the wagoner
Is slouching slowly at his ease,
Half-hidden in the windless blur
Of white dust puffiing to his knees.
This wagon on the height above,
From sky to sky on either hand,
Is the sole thing that seems to move
In all the heat-held land.

Beyond me in the fields the sun
Soaks in the grass and hath his will;
I count the marguerites one by one;
Even the buttercups are still.
On the brook yonder not a breath
Disturbs the spider or the midge.
The water-bugs draw close beneath
The cool gloom of the bridge.

Where the far elm-tree shadows flood
Dark patches in the burning grass,
The cows, each with her peaceful cud,
Lie waiting for the heat to pass.
From somewhere on the slope near by
Into the pale depth of the noon
A wandering thrush slides leisurely
His thin revolving tune.

In intervals of dreams I hear
The cricket from the droughty ground;
The grasshoppers spin into mine ear
A small innumerable sound.
I lift mine eyes sometimes to gaze:
The burning sky-line blinds my sight:
The woods far off are blue with haze:
The hills are drenched in light.

And yet to me not this or that
Is always sharp or always sweet;
In the sloped shadow of my hat
I lean at rest, and drain the heat;
Nay more, I think some blessèd power
Hath brought me wandering idly here:
In the full furnace of this hour
My thoughts grow keen and clear.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


We start our run through the Last Days of Socrates with Theaetetus. We will be doing eight dialogues from Plato: Theaetetus, Euthyphro, Cratylus, Sophist, Statesman, Apology, Crito, Phaedo. These dialogues have complex and not always straightforward relationships with each other. Theatetus is itself the first in an explicit triad of arguments, its sequels being Sophist and Statesman. In terms of its setting, it links closely to Euthyphro; the dialogue described in Theaetetus adjourns to continue the next day in the Sophist and the Statesman, with Socrates saying he has to go to the porch of the king archon to handle an indictment; at the beginning of Euthyphro, he is at the porch of the king archon for precisely that reason. The setting is so clearly identified that we know that Plato intends us to relate the topic of the dialogue to the indictment: it happens on the day of the indictment, before Socrates runs into Euthyphro.

Theaetetus is an aporetic or perplexed-conclusion dialogue; it is concerned with the definition of knowledge, and is very tightly argued. The dialogue is the source of a number of influential ideas, including that idea that we should become like God, the idea that philosophy begins with wondering, and the portrayal of Socratic method as midwifery. You can read an English translation at the Perseus Project and a French translation at Wikisource.

The Characters

In the frame narrative:

  Euclides of Megara
Euclides was a student of Socrates who founded the Megarian school of Hellenistic philosophy; most of our information about this school is either indirect or mere rumor, but there is good reason to believe that they had a significant influence on Stoic logic. Of Euclides we also have mostly indirect information or mere rumor, but Plato indicates he is also present in Phaedo, and he wrote Socratic dialogues, although none of them have survived.

  Terpsion of Megara
We know next to nothing about Terpsion except that he is a friend of Euclides and, like Euclides, is present in Phaedo as well as this dialogue.

There is also an unnamed slave of Euclides

In the main dialogue:

  Theodorus of Cyrene
Theodorus was a geometer and is mentioned in Xenophon's Memorabilia as such. According to at least one tradition, Plato studied mathematics under Theodorus.

  Theaetetus of Sunium
Theaetetus would become a mathematician, and a number of important mathematical discoveries are attributed to him (although many are likely apocryphal). However, as suggested by this dialogue, he only lives about seven or so years after Socrates' death, dying before reaching the age of thirty.


  Socrates of Athens (Socrates the Younger)
'Socrates' was a common name, so it is unsurprising that there are other people in Plato and Xenophon besides the Socrates, and this is one. We know almost nothing about him, but Aristotle seems to mention him once in the Metaphysics. While present, he doesn't actually talk in this dialogue.

There are also a number of unnamed young men.

The Plot

Euclides opens the dialogue by asking if Terpsion just got in; and Terpsion says he has been there a while, looking for Euclides. Euclides was at the harbor and happened to meet Theaetetus, wounded and sick. He walked with him a while, and, on his way back home, started thinking back about a discussion he had with Socrates not long before his death. In that discussion, Socrates related another discussion he (Socrates) had had with Theaetetus. Euclides was struck by it at the time, so he made notes on it when he got home, and whenever he visited Socrates (presumably while Socrates was waiting for his execution), he would ask questions about it, so he could correct his impression. He then wrote it up as a dialogue. Euclides has one of his slaves read this dialogue to Euclides and Terpsion. (Thus we have a rather complicated structure here. Plato is giving us a dialogue in which a slave is reading a dialogue written by Euclides on the basis of notes he made from when Socrates had talked about a prior discussion between Theaetetus and Socrates.)

The internal dialogue begins with Socrates asking Theodorus if he has any promising students here in Athens; Theodorus mentions Theaetetus, who looks a little like Socrates. Socrates and Theaetetus begin talking about knowledge. This leads eventually to a discussion of Protagoras, much of which takes place between Socrates and Theodorus. This eventually transitions back to Theaetetus, and they discover that all three of Theaetetus proposals for knowledge are empty. Socrates ends the dialogue by saying that he has to go to the stoa of the king archonto meet the indictment brought by Meletus; but he insists that they all pick up the discussion again the next day.

The Thought

It would be difficult to go into detail for all the arguments in this work, so to prevent ourselves from going on forever, we need to look at the argument in its broad sweeps. Several key points are worth mentioning.


One of the significant passages in this dialogue is the extended discussion of Socrates' art as maieutic or midwifery (149a-151e):

The difference is that I attend men and not women, and that I watch over the labor of their souls, not of their bodies. And the most important thing about my art is the ability to apply all possible tests to the offspring, to determine whether the young mind is being delivered of a phantom, that is, an error, or a fertile truth. For one thing which I have in common with the ordinary midwives is that I am barren of wisdom. The common reproach against me is that I am always asking questions of other people but never express my own views about anything, because there is no wisdom in me; and that is true enough. And the reason of it is this, that God compels me to attend the travail of others, but has forbidden me to procreate. So that I am not in any sense a wise man; I cannot claim as the child of my own soul any discovery worthy of the name of wisdom. But with those who associate with me it is different. at first some of them may give the impression of being ignorant and stupid; but as time goes on and our association continues, all whom God permits are seen to make progress--a progress which is amazing both to other people and to ourselves. (150b-d)

Socrates thus proposes to help Theaetetus through his own labors to give birth to "a multitude of beautiful things" (150d). But he notes that those who started out with him but thought that they were doing all the work have fallen in with bad company, unskilled in maieutic, so that they miscarried everything else they could have given birth to, and even lost the children they had had through the help of Socrates. (Socrates gives as an example Aristides son of Lysimachus, who is in Laches.)

One of the requirements of working with Socrates, however, is that you have to be willing to discover that when you seemed to give birth, you really only had a 'phantom' or a 'wind-egg'. This will happen, of course, as the dialogue continues, since all the proposed definitions of knowledge will fail. But even this prepares Theaetetus for future birth, or, if not, for being a better person anyway:

And so, Theaetetus, if ever in the future you should attempt to conceive or should succeed in conceiving other theories, they will be better ones as the result of this inquiry. And if remain barren, your companions will find you gentler and less tiresome; you will be modest and not think you know what you don't know. This is all my art can achieve--nothing more. I do not know any o fhte things that other men know--the great and inspired men of today and yesterday. But this art of midwifery my mother and I had allotted to us by God; she to deliver women, i to deliver men that are young and generous of spirit, all that have any beauty. (210c)

Protagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides

Protagoras, as Plato understands him, takes knowledge to be simply a matter of perception or how things appear. Much of the dialogue is devoted to arguing against this Protagorean position. However, Socrates argues that this Protagorean position is also closely linked with a particular view, associated with Heraclitus, that everything 'flows' or continually changes. Thus there is a major opposition is in the background thruoghout the dialogue: the fluent philosophers, who like Heraclitus hold that everything changes, and the Parmenidean view that what is and is known, in a proper sense, does not change. One of the important points about how Socrates approaches this is that he takes the Parmenidean view to be clearly a minority position. Most of the poets, philosophers, sophists, hold the Heraclitean view, or, at least, like Protagoras hold positions that seem to require it.

This can be important because if I ask what something is, the Heraclitean view indicates that there is no definite objective answer -- if I gave a stable, steady answer, it is only by convention (X is knowledge, for instance, just because we call X-like things 'knowledge', regardless of how they change). It's worth pointing out that this directly links up with the question of the indictment -- if charges like impiety are purely conventional, then they are expressions of 'might makes right'; only if they can be talking about something objective, natural, can they be a matter of justice in any sense that does not equate justice with the will of the powerful.

There are two different ways of reading Theaetetus that are related to this opposition. Under one reading, Plato is focused on refutation of the Heraclitean position; on the other, he is recognizing serious problems with it but not necessarily taking it to be refuted outright. There is no consensus among scholars about which is the better reading.

The Wind-Eggs

(1) Knowledge is nothing other than perception. This is the view that Socrates attributes to Protagoras, and how he understands the Protagorean claim, "Man is the measure of all things." This ends up having a number of problems, including that it becomes difficult to see how one can distinguish true from false perceptions -- all perceptions are perceptions, so if knowledge is nothing other than perception, everyone knows exactly what they perceive. All perceptions are true; no one is wiser than anyone else, so that even the gods are not wiser than men; we have knowledge whenever we perceive something; anything we can say about perception should apply to knowledge, as well. There are problems with all of these implications. A solid Protagorean, of course, will have answers to these objections -- but we run into the problem of knowing that these responses are true, and with the apparent fact that these responses seem to require us to say that there is something known that goes beyond mere perception.

(2) Knowledge just is true judgment. Much of Socrates' response to this focuses on false judgment, because if knowledge is to be true judgment, there must be some definite way to distinguish true judgment from false judgment that is presupposed by the account of knowledge. Socrates argues at some length that the distinction cannot arise from sensory experience alone; we repeatedly get puzzles about what false judgments would be. And these puzzles have the ramification that there must be some particular element that is being left out by identifying knowledge with true judgment. We see this again in the case of juries: a jury can have true judgment without knowledge, because they are making use of limited evidence and getting most of it secondhand.

(3) Knowledge is true judgment with explanation (logos). This seems more promising, but Socrates argues that it fails, also; either 'explanation' just ends up meaning 'whatever we-know-not-what that makes true judgment knowledge' or it ends up falling short of knowledge in some way.

Thus all three definitions of knowledge proposed by Theaetetus fail -- they are 'phantoms' or 'wind-eggs'. But Theaetetus -- and the reader --- is better off for this discovery.


* Note that we have two impending deaths in this dialogue: that of Socrates, just before the process that begins the process toward his death, and that of Theaetetus, from war-wounds and dysentery. Euclides bridges the two.

* This is the only dialogue in which Socrates describes his art as midwifery; but his doing so contains an implicit answer to both parts of the indictment: he is not impious, but following the course laid out for him by the God, in accordance with his divine sign; and he is not corrupting the youth, but bettering them -- they instead are corrupted when they set out on their own or fall in with a bad crowd.

* Berkeley in his work Siris repeatedly refers to Plato, and the Theaetetus is explicitly referred to seven times. One of those times he provides an interesting comment on the two opposing camps:

348. Socrates, in the Theætetus of Plato, speaketh of two parties of philosophers...the flowing philosophers who held all things to be in a perpetual flux, always generating and never existing; and those others who maintained the universe to be fixed and immoveable. The difference seems to have been this, that Heraclitus, Protagoras, Empedocles, and in general those of the former sect, considered things sensible and natural; whereas Parmenides and his party considered to pan, not as the sensible but as the intelligible world, abstracted from all sensible things.

349. In effect if we mean by things the sensible objects, these, it is evident, are always flowing; but if we mean things purely intelligible, then we may lay on the other hand, with equal truth, that they are immoveable and unchangeable. So that those, who thought the whole or to pan to be...a fixed or permanent one, seem to have understood the whole of real beings, which, in their sense, was only the intellectual world, not allowing reality of being to things not permanent.

* All of this seems to have some kind of relation to Socrates' indictment and trial, but Plato doesn't bring it out explicitly. The following passage, however, provides what I suspect is an important clue in this regard:

Socrates: Then consider political questions. Some of these are questions of what may or may not fittingly be done,of just and unjust, of what is sanctioned by religion and what is not; and here the theory may be prepared to maintain that whatever view a city takes on these matters and establishes as its law or convention, is truth and fact for that city....It is in those other questions I am talking about -- just and unjust, religious and unreligious -- that men are ready to insist that no one of these things has by nature any being of its own; in respect of these, they say, what seems to people collectively to be so is true, at the time when it seems that way and for just as long as it so seems. And even those who are not prepared to go all the way with Protagoras take some such view of wisdom. (172a-b)

Thus Protagorean epistemology and Heraclitean metaphysics aren't just abstract concerns; having to do with what justice is, and what piety or impiety is, whether they are things we just make up as we please or not, they are quite literally matters of life or death for Socrates.


* One thing that occurred to me well after writing this is that the dialogue provides a clue as to what knowledge is, without going out of its way to signal it, and without telling us exactly what to make of it: the single most important insight into the nature of knowledge in this dialogue is not any of the three 'wind-eggs', but the Socratic maieutic itself, which we see both described and shown. Socratic maieutic is not knowledge, as the dialogue carefully notes -- but it also seems clear that it is a clue to what knowledge would have to be.


Quotations are from Myles Burnyeat's revision of M. J. Levett's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., pp. 157-234.

This Common Fund of Toys and Verities

by Charles Tennyson Turner

Most dreams are like the tide upon the beach
Rolling the baseless pebbles, till their place
Is changed and changed again, beyond the reach
Of the best waking memory to retrace
The loose and helpless motion; these, and those
That stand like rocks, engraved with name and date,
And cognizable words of coming fate,
What mean they? who among our schoolmen knows?
What means this double power to rave and teach?
This common fund of toys and verities?
Of dooming oracles and foolish cries?
Now kept apart, now blending each with each --
Abortive interests, and unreal ties,
And prophecies no daylight can impeach!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Last Days of Socrates

We are gearing up for a run through the Last Days of Socrates, which will consist of nine dialogues total, eight of them by Plato, so it makes sense to rough out a dramatic timeline for Socrates' last days.


Socrates talks with Theodorus, Theaetetus, and Socrates the Younger about knowledge. At the end of the dialogue he heads out to the stoa of the king archon, for his pretrial hearing, because Meletus is laying an indictment against him for impiety and corrupting the youth.

At the stoa of the king archon, Socrates runs into Euthyphro, who is prosecuting his own father for murder, and they talk about what piety is.

The placement of the Cratylus is controversial, which I'll talk about a bit when we get to it, but in the course of discussion, Socrates mentions that he was talking with Euthyphro early that morning. Socrates discusses the meaning of words with Hermogenes and Cratylus.


Socrates continues his discussion with Theaetetus, Theodorus, Young Socrates; a new person is introduced to the conversation, the Eleatic Stranger.

The discussion between Socrates, Theaetetus, Theodorus, Young Socrates, and the Eleatic Stranger continues.

We do not know how long this period is, but it was probably at least a month.

Socrates' discussion with Hermogenes recorded in Xenophon's Memorabilia 4.8 would occur somewhere in this period.


Plato's Apology
Xenophon's Apology
Plato gives only a defense speech and the dialogue with Meletus during it, but Xenophon also gives some comments afterward. Plato puts himself at the trial, but Xenophon attributes his knowledge of this day to Hermogenes.

Socrates happened to be condemned to death during a religious period in which the Athenians sent a ship to Delos, and by law no one could be executed before it returned. Xenophon sets this period at about thirty days. During this period Socrates regularly has visitors.

Crito has had reliable word that the ship is a day away (but Socrates says he has had a dream that it will take two more days), so this occurs as the period draws to a close. Socrates and Crito discuss the laws of Athens as Crito tries to get Socrates to leave prison.


A large crowd of Socrates' students are with Socrates on his last day. He talks about death and the immortality of the soul with them. It ends with Socrates' death, and Crito closes his eyes and mouth.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Philosophical Pantheon

Philosophy is a huge field, and there are a jillion legitimate ways you could divide it up: by geographical region, by historical epoch, by tradition, by problem, by mode of argumentation, and so forth. Usually we use a mish-mash of these, as we deem convenient. In any case, many of them are boring. I've sometimes thought that we should divide philosophy up according to a Greco-Roman pantheon.

Zeus is obviously metaphysics, being also Jupiter Terminus, maker of boundaries, and Jupiter Invictus, unconquered, and the chief of the gods, Jupiter Optimus Maximus, and Jupiter Tegillus, the linchpin of the universe. Note that Athena, who is epistemology, springs up as a full-grown virgin from his head.

Hera, of course, is ethics; one of Zeus's titles is Consort of Hera, and the cow-eyed, white-armed goddess is the patron of order, law, sovereignty, marriage. She is also Juno Moneta, the warner, and Juno Sospita, the savior. And ethics obviously has some claim to being the queen of all philosophy.

Poseidon is comparative philosophy; his realm touches every shore. Also, he is brother of Zeus, and note that comparative philosophy shares with metaphysics that it is a way of encompassing the whole of philosophy.

And we historians of philosophy of course, have our own high patron, the unseen god himself, Hades, whose jurisdiction is ever-growing and into whose realm everyone comes to be judged and sorted, whether sooner or later. That is why he is called Agesilaus, the taker of peoples, and Polydegmon, receiver of many. His treasuries are inexhaustible, for he is Plautodotes, giver of wealth. History of philosophy, like metaphysics and comparative philosophy, is a way of encompassing the whole of philosophy, so it is fitting that its corresponding member of the pantheon should be brother of Zeus. And we are the custodians of the dead, whom nobody, not even you, can escape, O philosopher; one day you, too, will journey to the realm of shades, and not yourself but the historians of philosophy will sit in judgment over you to determine whether you attain to the Elysian status of philosophical hero or are damned to the penalty of Sisyphus in Tartarus. Or perhaps, indeed, and more likely, you will wander among the mass of shades beside the River of Oblivion, dismissed because you did not pay your fee and we did not carry you over, deeming you unworthy even of our condemnation.

Yes, I did write this entire post just so I would have an excuse to write that paragraph.

Hephaestos is obviously the philosophy of crafts and productive skills.

Hermes, the swift god, god of liars, is obviously the philosophy of language.

So that leaves Demeter, Aphrodite, the Twins, Ares, and Hestia, and also, later, Dionysus. Demeter is perhaps political philosophy, because she is Thesmophoros, the law-bringer. But it would have to be 'political' as the Greeks would have understood, civilized life. Apollo could perhaps be aesthetics, but then what would Artemis be? What is to aesthetics as the moon is to the sun, and yet is also worthy to be represented by the virgin huntress? And what is Hestia? Logic, perhaps: the primal hearth of thought, always still and always central. If we took our cue from Socrates, we could perhaps give a jurisdiction to Aphrodite, since her son is Eros, and he himself claimed to be expert only in matters of eros, his 'method', in fact, being eros itself. We have no good word for it; but we could just call it Socratic. Ares may just have to be given up, although perhaps there is something appropriate in his Roman mask. And wild Dionysus is also a non-obvious one. What are your suggestions?

Xenophon's Socratic Memorabilia, Book IV

Theme and Structure

Book IV discusses the way in which Socrates approached important matters. I think that the point of this book is to give a more rounded picture of Socrates in action than Xenophon could give in the other books.

4.1-2 Xenophon first discusses how Socrates approached those who were proud of their education in general terms (4.1) and then gives a specific example through Socrates' discussion with Euthydemus (4.2).

4.3-7 We next get several sections discussing how Socrates focused on trying to develop sophrosyne, sober judgment, in people by encouraging reasonable piety (4.3), taught them justice by showing what it was in his actions (4.4), helped them to be more competent in their tasks through philosophical dialectic (4.5), helped them to be better at philosophical dialectic itself (4.6), and assisted them in becoming self-sufficient (4.7).

4.8 We then end the book and the work with a brief discussion of the meaning of Socrates' death.

Notable Highlights

Euthydemus probably is being used by Xenophon as a typical student, but he is also mentioned in Plato's Symposium. We get a lot of similarities between Xenophon and Plato in these sections. We also get the discussion with Hippias of Elis in 4.4, and the portrayal of the interaction is in many ways very similar to the portrayal we get in Plato's Hippias Major and Hippias Minor. But the most notable point is the discussion with Hermogenes (4.8), who was Xenophon's source for the events of Socrates' last days (Xenophon himself was was not in Athens at that time, off in Persia and then Sparta, experiencing the events that he would write up in the Anabasis).

Hermogenes, after Meletus had laid his indictment, heard that Socrates was discussing things other than his trial, and told him that he should work on his defense. In response to this, Socrates asked, "Don't you think my whole life has been a preparation for it?" -- namely, by devoting his life to the study of right and wrong. When Hermogenes responds that juries have been known to condemn innocent men, he responds that his daimonion prevented him from working on it. But Socrates remarks that up to that point in his life, he had as pleasant and good life as could be wished; his death will spare him the slow loss of that. Further, he knows how reputation works; if unjust men put him to death, it will still be known that he always tried to make his associates better people.


Quotations from Robin Waterfield's revised translation of Hugh Tredennick's translation in Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates, Tredennick & Waterfield, trs. Penguin (New York: 1990).

Two New Poem Drafts


Freighted with gold from afar,
the fairy-tale
stands like a stone ivy-covered,
a stele to mark
where ancient kings moved their knights,
a cairn as sign
that once a deed was greatly done,
a fragment,
a trace of yesteryear.

Exhortation to the Mockingbird

Rejoice! O mockingbird, make call!
O sunlight, lightly pass
through dewy gems that line the grass;
precipitately fall
through air and dazzle all --
the stars outclass.
O fairy clock and lion's tooth,
for hoary head trade golden youth
and learn to dance.
O mockingbird, weave in song
the dew, the light, the lion-throng
that meet my sunlit glance!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Xenophon's Socratic Memorabilia, Book III

Theme and Structure

As Book II focused on Socrates' beneficial teaching of self-discipline, Book III focuses on ways in which Socrates' teaching has contributed to making people better -- in particular, better in their contributions to the city.

3.1-7 Making Better Leaders. Socrates begins by discussing military matters: the education of a general (3.1), the standard for a general (3.2), the responsibility of a cavalry commander (3.3), the responsibility of a general (3.4), and, with Pericles the Younger, the goals a general should take on to make the army well-ordered (3.5).

He then is shown discussing political leadership, first arguing with Glaucon that one must only enter into politics properly prepared (3.6), then arguing with Charmides that one must not shirk the responsibility to enter into it (3.7).

3.8-14 Making Lives Well-Ordered. The second half of the book is somewhat more miscellaneous, but still, I think, has some structure. We begin with Socrates showing Aristippus the importance of a well-ordered life (3.8) and continue with various comments about Socrates' general teaching on the well-ordered life (3.9).

After this, we find Socrates talking with people in various specific occupations, so we see him contributing to the actual good order of their lives. The occupations are: painting, sculpting, and armoury (3.10) and courtesanship (3.11), or, in other words, several of the major male productive trades and the one and only productive trade available for women in ancient Greece.

Then we get some various comments and discussions by Socrates on the body: the importance of physical training (3.12) and miscellaneous comments on things like travel (which would have involved an immense amount of walking, of course), food, and drink (3.13-14).

Notable Highlights

There are several interesting things in this part of the work. Socrates' advice to the cavalry commander is closely related to Xenophon's discussion of cavalry command in his Hipparchikos. We get Xenophon's one and only mention of Plato in the discussion with Plato's brother, Glaucon. Socrates' advice is much more practical than we generally get in Plato, although it is important to note that it is not entirely without parallel -- Laches, for instance, clearly has some links with the discussions of generalship here, and there are several places in Plato's dialogues in which the importance of physical education for a life well ordered is emphasized (e.g., Timaeus, Republic). But perhaps most interesting are the discussions with Pericles the Younger (son of Pericles and Aspasia) and with the hetaira Theodote. The latter is the only time we actually see Socrates being Socratic with a woman in any extant Socratic writing. (In Plato we have several references to Socrates discussing matters with Aspasia, and Socrates' recounting of the lessons with Diotima in the Symposium, and his wife Xanthippe is technically present and speaks briefly at the beginning of Socrates' last day, but we never actually see real interaction. It is possible that Socrates interacts with Aspasia in Aeschines' dialogue Aspasia, of which we have fragments, but it's not clear from any of the surviving fragments that this is the case.)

(1) Unlike his older half-brothers, Pericles the Younger was technically born a foreigner rather than an Athenian, because at the time Athenian law confined Athenian citizenship to those with two Athenian parents, and Pericles' mother, Aspasia, was herself a foreigner. However, the Athenian assembly seems to have passed a law naturalizing him. He was elected general but had a relatively short career: he was at the battle of Arginusae, and was one of the generals executed by the Athenians due to the failure to save Athenian sailors in the aftermath of the battle.

It thus must be deliberately ironic that Socrates opens the discussion with a hope that if Pericles is elected general, the city will have military victory. They discuss the puzzle that Athens seems to have no disadvantages with respect to Boeotia (e.g., Thebes), but that Athens has not been doing very well against them (the battle of Delium, at which Socrates himself fought, is one of the examples mentioned). Socrates suggests that this might be because they are waiting for the right leader. If you were trying to get someone to take property, you could do it by convincing them that it was their inheritance, so you'd need to do the same in order to get people to reach out and take virtue. The example of taking another person's property is, I suspect, an allusion to common Athenian justifications of the Athenian empire as being the right of Athenians due to the success of the Athenians in the Persian War; Socrates contrasts this with taking the virtuous behavior of Athenians in the old stories, including stories about the Persian War, as a legacy.

Pericles wonders how the Athenians could have degenerated so much. Socrates suggests that it is negligence, as when a star athlete grows complacent through lack of effort. The Athenians could reclaim their excellence, either by rediscovering their ancestral way of life or by looking to the Spartans and working to outdo them in virtue. Pericles is skeptical of the ability of Athens to do this, given how given the Athenians are to quarrels. Socrates is more optimistic, and brings the discussion again to the importance of having the right leaders, and they end by discussing some particular things generals should do.

(2) Someone happens to mention that Theodote is beautiful beyond description, at which Socrates responds that they should go see her, since no one can get an idea from description of what is beyond description. They find Theodote posing as a model for a painter, and when the painter is done, Socrates raises a question: Should they be more grateful to Theodote for letting them see her beauty, or should she be more grateful to them for seeing it? Theodote gets the admiration, and her reputation will be spread further; but those who see her are left with only longing. Theodote notes that the consequence seems to be that she should be grateful to them.

Socrates, seeing how fine Theodote's clothes are, asks the source of her money. Theodote replies that she has generous 'friends' (philoi); and Socrates asks if she gets her friends by luck (tyche) or contrivance (mechana). This turns the discussion to hunting friends, and Socrates suggests that she should find a human hound to hunt them down for her, and then catch them in her nets. She asks what nets she has, and Socrates says she has her body, and more importantly than that, inside her body she has her mind, and the capacity to lvoe by word and deed. Socrates gives other advice for catching 'friends', and Theodote asks for his help in doing so.

Socrates jokes that he's a very busy man, and that he has a lot of 'girlfriends' (philai) who are constantly demanding his help in making love-philtres and charms. Theodote, surprised, asks if Socrates knows those, as well, and Socrates asks however else he always has his companions with him. Theodote asks him to lend her his magic wheel so she can use it first to charm him, and Socrates insists that he wants her to come to him instead. Then it ends, somewhat cryptically:

'Very well, I will,' she declared. 'Only mind you let me in.'

'Yes, I'll let you in,' said Socrates, 'unless I have someone with me that I like better.'

It is worth pointing out that a hetaira was not a prostitute; the lines between the two could blur in less reputable or more desperate cases, but prostitution was not what the hetaira did, and, like a modern geisha, to the extent that the profession itself was sexual, it was usually focused more on the sexual allure of a woman capable of crossing into situations otherwise reserved for men, rather than on sexual acts. This sharply distinguished them from actual prostitutes. Thus, despite the sexual tinge that inevitably surrounds the work of the hetaira, the discussion here isn't very far from what could be had with any businessman or consultant. (The masculine version of hetaira, which is hetairos, meant a companion or comrade and was often used of business partners. Indeed, the hetaira is in a sense a specialized business partner or consultant -- her primary task was to facilitate the networking that made business and politics possible in democratic Athens.)