In the Theaetetus, a young Theaetetus admits that he has thought about the problem of defining knowledge many times before and suffers from his lack of an adequate solution. Socrates says, ‘These are the pangs of labour, my dear Theaetetus; you have something within you which you are bringing forth’. Socrates compares himself to a midwife, who can establish whether a woman is pregnant, induce labour, calm its pain, and bring about the delivery of a healthy child. He differs from a midwife only in that he works with men rather than with women, and with the soul rather than with the body. Just like the midwife is past bearing age, so he is barren – not of children, but of wisdom. All he can do is to bring forth wisdom in others, and the triumph of his art is ‘in thoroughly examining whether the thought which the mind of the young man brings forth is a false idol or a noble and true birth’. Sometimes the young man takes all the credit for himself, leaves him sooner than he should, and once again begins to set more value upon phantoms than upon the truth. In such cases the young man loses whatever he gave birth to and miscarries whatever remains in him. Then one day he realises that he is an ignorant fool and falls upon his knees, begging to return. Socrates warns that, should Theaetetus give birth to a phantom or false idol, he will tear it away from him and expose it.
And if I abstract and expose your first-born, because I discover upon inspection that the conception which you have formed is a vain shadow, do not quarrel with me on that account, as the manner of women is when their first children are taken from them. For I have actually known some who were ready to bite me when I deprived them of a darling folly.
Adapted from Plato’s Shadow