Socrates—Knowing and Not Knowing
aToday, we’re going back to the very beginning of the philosophical traditions of the West to look at Socrates, who lived in Greece in the 5th century BCE, and to see how wisdom may be not just about what you know but about what you don’t know. Yesterday, we talked about Plato and how the philosopher was “between the wise and the ignorant.” Plato’s teacher, Socrates, admitted to being profoundly ignorant. So, in what way was he wise?
We know about Socrates from the writings of his students, Plato and Xenophon. His day job was as a stonemason, and he had spent time doing military service. He could neither read nor write, and he was not impressed by people who could. He was blunt to the point of rudeness. And he was famously squat and ugly.
What turned Socrates into a philosopher—a lover of wisdom, somebody who was in that strange space between knowledge and ignorance—was a puzzle put to him by his friend Chaerephon. According to Plato’s Apology, one day, Socrates’s Chaerephon went to talk to the oracle at Delphi. Chaerephon asked the oracle who the wisest person in Athens was, and the oracle told him: Socrates.
Socrates was puzzled. How could he be the wisest person in Athens, when he knew nothing at all? To test out whether the oracle was right, he decided to track down all the apparently wise people in the city and ask them what they knew.
The Big Questions
Socrates had a way of asking questions that was profoundly unsettling. When he found somebody apparently wise, somebody talking about the Big Questions of life—like justice or goodness—he would ask them, “What is justice?” or, “What is goodness?” What he discovered is that, under examination, they couldn’t give a clear definition. They could give examples, but they couldn’t really say what these things were. This troubled Socrates because disagreements over things like justice and goodness were precisely the kinds of disputes that led us to falling out with each other—to disagreement, conflict, and even war.
Knowing and Not Knowing
This method of asking, “What is … ?” questions turned out to be really powerful. Socrates found he didn’t come up with any clear answers to any of these questions. But neither did anybody else. Socrates often ended his discussions by asking the person he was talking with to go on looking. What made Socrates different—what made him wiser than anybody else in Athens—was this: He was wiser than everybody else because he knew that he didn’t know.
Eventually, Socrates’s questioning became so troubling to the Athens elite that he was put to death. After all, nobody likes to have their authority undermined! But philosophers today are still arguing about questions like, “What is goodness?” and, “What is justice?”
So, here’s a thought to end our 2nd day: perhaps wisdom is not just about what we know but about knowing what we don’t know. Tomorrow, we’ll move on to Plato, who—despite all this—thought he knew quite a lot …
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