Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Socrates as Midwife

What in the heck was Socrates doing with his life?

Socrates regularly used two metaphors to describe what he considered his life-work to be. One metaphor was that of the gadfly, the horsefly that stings the intellectually and morally sluggish citizens of Athens with his questioning. "For Athens is a great and noble steed that is tardy in its motions," and needs someone to sting it to life, he says.

The other metaphor he uses to describe his work is that of the midwife who helps others give birth to the wisdom that is in them. He says it thus, in The Theaetetus , 150 b-c

My art of midwifery is in general like theirs [real midwives]; the only difference is that my patients are men, not women, and my concern is not with the body but with the soul that is in travail of birth. And the highest point of my art is the power to prove by every test whether the offspring of a young man's thought is a false phantom or instinct with life and truth. I am so far like the midwife that I cannot myself give birth to wisdom, and the common reproach is true, that, though I question others, I can myself bring nothing to light because there is no wisdom in me. The reason is this. Heaven (Jowett: "the god") constrains me to serve as a midwife, but has debarred me from giving birth. So of myself I have no sort of wisdom, nor has any discovery ever been born to me as the child of my soul. Those who frequent my company at first appear, some of them, quite unintelligent, but, as we go further with our discussions, all who are favored by heaven make progress at a rate that seems surprising to others as well as to themselves, although it is clear that they have never learned anything from me. The many admirable truths they bring to birth have been discovered by themselves from within. But the delivery is heaven's work and mine.