Sunday, May 15, 2005

Wisely ignorant

Socrates is reputed to be one of the wisest men who ever lived. Paradoxically, it was his ignorance that made him wise.

(Note to the reader: I am using the word ignorant in its original sense, "lacking knowledge, uninformed": not in its colloquial sense, "ill-mannered, uncouth". Socrates was aware that he lacked knowledge, which made him wise.)

There used to be a television show called "Kids say the Darndest Things". But I think adults say the darndest things, too. People sound off on subjects they know nothing about. They assume they know something: but based on what? They haven't studied the subject and they haven't trained themselves to think through issues in a methodical way. But they have an opinion, and they know they are right.

In person, I am cautious about expressing an opinion. (You might have formed a different impression of me, based on my blog!) As a result, I often find myself shut out of conversations. While I pause to think, someone else seizes the conversational ball, and I go back to listening.

I wouldn't mind, if only the other person had something thoughtful to say. But too often, the confidence with which people express an opinion is inversely proportional to how much they actually know about the subject. I end up wasting my time, listening to a foolish monologue.

Very few people can speak intelligently on a wide range of subjects. Most of us would do well to listen more and speak less.

Epictetus (an ancient Greek philosopher) put it this way: "We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak." A proverb attributed to Solomon says, "Whoever restrains his words has knowledge … even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise" (Proverbs 17:27-28).

But I began by speaking of Socrates. Here is his account of himself, when he was on trial before his fellow Athenians. The sentence structure is a little convoluted for a modern reader, so here's a brief summary: (1) The oracle at Delphi says there is no one wiser than Socrates. (2) Socrates is aware how little he knows, so he thinks the statement is absurd. He sets out to prove the oracle wrong. (3) Socrates learns that his ignorance is the very thing that makes him wiser than his fellows.

Chaerephon, as you know, was very impetuous in all his doings, and he went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him…whether anyone was wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess answered that there was no man wiser. Chaerephon is dead himself; but his brother, who is in court, will confirm the truth of what I am saying.

Why do I mention this? Because I am going to explain to you why I have such an evil name.

When I heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean? And what is the interpretation of his riddle? For I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What then can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god, and cannot lie; that would be against his nature.

After long perplexity, I thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, “Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.”

Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him — his name I need not mention, he was a politician; and in the process of examining him and talking with him, this, men of Athens, was what I found. I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me.

So I left him, saying to myself as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really worth knowing, I am at least wiser than this fellow — for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this one little point, then, I seem to have the advantage of him.

…The truth is, O men of Athens, that god only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing; although speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name by way of illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.

[excerpted from Plato's Apology]

A challenging message for those of us who blog!

7 Comments:

At 3:30 PM, May 16, 2005, Blogger ixia said...

I enjoy reading your blog
and thank you for wishing me happy bd

 
At 3:33 PM, May 16, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

You're welcome, Ixia, and thanks for the kind words. Will you use your new camera to post some pictures on your blog?
Q

 
At 6:32 PM, May 16, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

Very true. However if as you say "you end up wasting my time, listening to a foolish monologue"
,You have nonetheless learned something of the nature of the person you are listening to.

I agree that listening more then speaking is a far wiser way to converse. (a lesson many politicians should learn )However, life is one huge conversation, if we don't engage in it we won't learn. The least we learn, is about our own ignorance in the reactions of others.

Not being having a broad understanding of Philosophy and specifically Socrates, I think I can see some of this in Socrates words.

So I left him, saying to myself as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really worth knowing, I am at least wiser than this fellow — for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this one little point, then, I seem to have the advantage of him..

However, I could be wrong.

 
At 6:36 PM, May 16, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

Sorry I over edited that last response and thus the line that reads "Not being having a broad understanding of Philosophy and specifically Socrates, I think I can see some of this in Socrates words." should read "Not having a broad understanding of Philosophy and specifically Socrates, I may not be interpreting this correctly, However I think I can see some of this idea in Socrates words.

 
At 6:27 AM, May 17, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

life is one huge conversation.
I like the metaphor.

The least we learn, is about our own ignorance in the reactions of others.
I'm not sure how to interpret your statement. Socrates knew he was ignorant before he spoke to the politician. But the encounter taught him something about his wisdom: that he was, "in this one little point", wiser than the politician. I think this is what you were pointing out in your comment.

The post makes me sound a little more cynical than I am in practice. As I state in the "About me" blurb, I never dismiss anyone's opinions on mere prejudice. I don't spend my time thinking, This is an ignorant fellow — I have nothing to learn from him.

The problem is with those people that Socrates pokes fun at: "he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself". I learn least from the very people who think they know the most. It isn't surprising, really. Since they think they know so much — since they spend so much time talking and so little time listening — they aren't learners and therefore they have little to teach others.

Only learners have anything to teach.
Q

 
At 3:23 PM, May 20, 2005, Blogger snaars said...

I read this post a few days ago. I want to say something about it, but I don't know what to add.

I am pleased to see this excerpt on your blog. Plato's Apology of Socrates is one of those classics which, like some passages of the Bible, never seem to grow old.

When I read things like this attentively, I always discover something I didn't notice before. It takes work, but it is rewarding.

 
At 10:27 AM, May 22, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

I'm just reading Plato for the first time, along with Guthrie's History of Greek Philosophy.

There are a lot of gaps in my education. In part, it's because the schools I attended were average at best. And, in part, it's because I was a less-than-devoted student. I've had to make up a lot of ground since I began to get serious about educating myself about 15 years ago.

I go at my studies somewhat sporadically, interspersed with the business of daily life. (Q. How do you eat an elephant? A. One bite at a time.) But it's a rewarding exercise and well worth the investment of time and mental energy.

Certainly I'd recommend Plato to anyone. He's quite accessible, relative to other philosophers.
Q

 

Post a Comment

<< Home