Artwork by Catherine Craig,
As the drama of Plato’s dialogue, the Theatetus, begins Socrates is on his way to the courthouse, where he will be charge and convicted to death for not believing in Athenian gods and corrupting the youth. Just prior to his arrival he meets Euthyphro, a man who is going to charge his own father with impiety and Socrates interrogates him about the nature of piety. The dialogue appears to end inconclusively, with Euthyphro running away. Prior, however, even to meeting Euthyphro, Socrates meets Theatetus, a young man who looks just like him, and Socrates tries to helps him give birth to an account of knowledge. Along the way, two fathers of such accounts, Protagoras and Parmenides, are referred to and both seemed to be condemned by the dialogue, just as Euthyphro will condemn his father and Athens will condemn Socrates. Finally, we know that this dialogue is being recounted or recollected some thirty years after the events that are described just as Theatetus lies dying from wounds he suffered in battle and Socrates has been dead for many years.  

So while the dialogue is explicitly about knowledge, it is at the same time a dialogue about the nature of existence or being-being in the absolute or divine sense, as well as in the sense of our own existences and what we might hope for after our bodies have been condemned to death. In large part the answer to the question depends on whether we, like Euthyphro, condemn our father or the source of our existence, or we recollect his existence in ours and thus our ongoing dependence on him.

The difficulty of discerning the nature of ‘K’nowledge and ‘B’eing, as Socrates notes is that we fall into the middle of that which is always the same, such as the absolute or the divine, and that which is in constant motion and thus ever-changing, like the material world (181a).  While another disucussant, Theodorus, might hope that everyone should be convinced to spend their leisure, even an eternity (175a), seeking to discern what is advantageous to their souls rather than focusing on their worldly success (173a), Socrates replies, “it is not possible for the evils to perish … but of necessity they haunt mortal nature”(176b). In other words, regardless of whether our souls are immortal, the necessity of our bodies dictates mortality and death. In this way, we are between the gods and the dust. 

As such, if knowledge is merely that which we  perceive through our bodies, the position that Theatetus initially takes,our inability to perceive anything that is unchanging or eternally true means that we can never know anything. As soon as you imagine you have grasped the truth of anything -your dog, your house, your Socrates-in that very same instance it has moved and changed, and your knowledge is as Socrates describes it: still-born. If this true, we have no reason to hope for anything beyond our deaths, for everything that we do perceive eventually dies.

The question of the dialogue then is there anything eternal to be known, and if so how do we know it. For only in this way can knowledge in and of itself be saved, and at the same time, might we be given hope that because of our capacity to know the eternal, we might participate in some small share with its existence. Only in this way, you see, is it possible for the friends who recollect Socrates after his death and tell us his stories to have any hope of seeing their Socrates again, or me of my Timmy, or you of your loved ones.

Towards the end of the dialogue, Theatetus suggests that knowledge is true opinion and that everything that comes to be from this source is beautiful and good. While Socrates quickly advances beyond this position, he takes up Theatetus’s suggestion that one should look for the source of the world that we perceive, the source of that which becomes. Exchanging Theatetus’s dream for one of his own (201e), Socrates says he once dreamt  a conversation wherein someone said that there existed first principles. And from these everything else was created (201e) by means of a skilled weaver, someone who plaited together various components of being, and goodness and truth such that the world as we experience it was formed. And while we have perhaps never perceive these first principles and cannot give an account of them other than by referring to their name or synonyms of that name, we nonetheless understand them. For instance, we all know what it means “to be” but we would never be able to explain it other than to say “it is,” “I am,” “you are.”

How this is possible, Socrates does not explain, after all, he knows it as though from a dream. But that “it is” we can all attest to from our own experience. Knowledge, Socrates then suggests but then moves past, is when we compare the things that we perceive in the world with these principles that we understand and seeing how they are similar and dissimilar, we come to know their essential nature, not just as components (a dog: fur, four legs, a wet nose), but Timmy-the particular dog that I love.  

And as Socrates goes to the law court to be certainly convicted, this gives both him and his friends  good reason to hope. They don’t “know” perhaps that it is true, but there is sufficient evidence by means of argument and experience to suggest that one might have faith in the possibility of Socrates’s and Timmy’s eternal existence. And so a dialogue that is about knowledge or epistemology is actually a dialogue platonic piety, and that which one might have faith in and hope for.