Sunday, June 14, 2009

Socrates, Wisdom, and You

Seeing how this blog is named after a paraphrasing of one of Socrates' most famous quotes, I thought it appropriate that the concept of my first post have something to do with the concept of wisdom, a concept discussed to a great degree in Plato's The Apology of Socrates.

During his testimony Socrates made reference to a certain wisdom that he believed he possessed, a wisdom "attainable by man." He refered to a witness and a personal friend, Caerephon, who ventured to Delphi to address the oracle and ask of it if "there was anyone wiser than Socrates." The oracle responded in the negative, that there was none wiser than Socrates.

This answer confused Socrates and he began to question his own concept of wisdom. In his testimony he says:

"What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of this riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men?"

In order to address these questions, Socrates came upon a method of testing the answer from the god in an attempt to refute him. His method required him to go to various individuals, whether they be politicians, artisans, lawyers, or poets - people who were thought to be wise - and examine them in an attempt to understand the depths of their intelligence or wisdom.

After speaking to the "unnamed politician," Socrates said:
"Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage on him."

His visit with the poets yielded similar results. He discovered that the wordsmiths don't construct their works based on a certain wisdom but instead "by a sort of genius or inspiration."

Socrates ascertained that because of their genius at creating poetry the poets believed themselves to be just was wise in other matters as well; matters that they were clearly ignorant.

He came upon the same conclusion with the artisans too:
"Because they were good workman they also thought they knew of all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom."

Socrates discovered that by acknowledging his own ignorance he was indeed being quite wise, while the individuals that he mentions in his testimony were being unwise because they believed that they knew a great deal about their craft that they then were well-informed about many other subjects that they were in fact ignorant.

Socrates concluded that only the God can be so wise that he knows everything and that in the eyes of the gods man's wisdom means nothing. Therefore, Socrates was the wisest because he understands that his wisdom was meaningless.

What does this mean?
The main point I take out of Socrates' argument is that by acknowledging your own ignorance, or lack of wisdom, you are free to pursue a greater depth of understanding of a wide range subjects that, in your ignorance, you may not have pursued otherwise.

Intellectual ignorance, because of complacency, can be a major roadblock to a person's development. Complacency occurs because people settle and are satisfied with all that they know, making the assumption that they know everything because they know some of one subject.

Yet it doesn't matter how other people approach living their lives, it only matters how you approach yours. If you acknowledge that because ignorance comes about because of complacency and that complacency prevents intellectual development, you can thus continue to pursue knowledge and develop as a human being.

Additionally, strive to understand not just the surface level of things, i.e. the most obvious, but instead the underlying causes of its current state. For example, a tree did not just appear out of the ground, so where did it come from? What of the tree before it? See not only the branches and leaves of the tree but what is not visible, its roots, as well. In essence, search for the "why."

To put a more modern spin on this idea: You see a car on the road. You recognize it as a certain brand of car, you see the color of the body, you count the number of doors, tires and windows, and you discern its size and shape.

So you ask yourself: Where did this car come from? How was it assembled? Where did each individual part come from and who was involved in its construction? Who designed the car, down to the nuts and bolts in the engine? Who educated the engineer while they were in college?

Most importantly, who are these people's families? What do they do?

Each car is the culmination of such a staggering degree of cooperation by such a large group of people that its very existence is something of a miracle.

Understanding this can lead one to become aware of how connected, or dependent, everything is in the world. By actively searching for these connections, one can cultivate knowledge.

Therefore, similar to everything else in this reality, knowledge and understanding walk hand in hand together to the ultimate goal: wisdom. By understanding that your knowledge will always be incomplete you have attained wisdom.

Thanks for reading and good luck,



Greetings and welcome to the very first post on my new blog. My name is Nathaniel and in this blog I intend to write about the various scholars that have and continue to touch my life on a daily basis.

My journey into studying philosophy began several years ago. I had taken a philosophy class at my university having had no prior contact with the subject or any of its great thinkers. The first text we were required to read was Plato's "The Trial and Death of Socrates," a work that has since spurned me on the path to many other different works of philosophy by many different thinkers.

After taking the time to understand what Socrates was saying (something I will address shortly) my curiosity was greatly expanded and I sought out other works. Soon after I began to read other works I had a rather extreme religious encounter that lead me to investigate Christian and Buddhist works, which lead me to the Gospel of Thomas, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Naht Hahn.

Reading all of these works has given me a much broader perspective on human behavior, my own thoughts and feelings, and many other things which I will discuss when I get to them.

I want to stress that I am by no means a philosophical scholar. I've seen many other philosophy blogs posted online that have been written by individuals with some very impressive credentials. Instead I want to have a place where I can write my own musings about the various things I have read and the experiences I've had, sort of like an easily accessible catalog of my thoughts. Additionally as a future professional writer this outlet provides an excellent way for me to practice my future craft.

Looking forward to sharing my thoughts and hearing yours,