Around 2,400 years ago in ancient Athens, mankind was dealt a humbling blow to our collective self-confidence, and it came by the way of Socrates.
We all know the name Socrates, but few know what he stood for.
In my eyes his greatest lesson came when the Oracle at Delphi proclaimed Socrates to be the wisest man in all of Greece, and Socrates immediately sought to prove the Oracle wrong, for he knew how little he actually knew. He went on an inquisition, seeking in all the wise men of Athens for a man who knew more than he. Time and time again, he came across men who claimed great knowledge over human affairs and man’s deepest metaphysical questions. Time and time again, he was astonished at how little these “wise” men actually knew, and even more amazed at their inability to admit their ignorance. Ultimately, though full of self-doubt, Socrates accepted the Oracle’s proclamation that he was the wisest of all men because though he knew nothing, at least he knew that.
This is the greatest lesson Socrates has bestowed upon us. One of the founders of Western Philosophy, and the apparent source of much of Plato’s great work, Socrates is widely considered one of the greatest thinkers in human history. Whether it be epistemology, ethics or the Socratic Method, Socrates has handed down many tools with which each and every one of us navigates the world, and was the foundation for much of modern thought. This being said, he was open and honest about his own ignorance, and never claimed great knowledge over anything. This is worth holding on to.
One of the greatest minds to have ever lived proclaimed complete ignorance over the ways of the world.
This is described beautifully in Plato’s Meno when Meno accuses Socrates of purposefully bewildering others and enchanting them with his words, perplexing all with whom he conversed. Socrates simply replies, “for I perplex others, not because I am clear, but because I am utterly perplexed myself.”
It is this admittance of ignorance that is the starting point for all knowledge.
If one’s mind is full of their perceived truths, and leaves no room for doubt or the entertaining of other possibilities, education and the associated acquisition of understanding die with it. This is the beginning of the end for man. It is only when we can admit our ignorance to ourselves and others that we leave room for real wisdom to take route.
In today’s world, we have access to the totality of human knowledge in the palm of our hand, and we egoically mistake this knowledge as our own. We have labels and universally accepted descriptions of all phenomena, and we accept them as a matter of fact. But we must dig deeper. We must truly question.
We have not even come to an agreed upon definition of what knowledge actually is. Epistemologists have come to a loose description of knowledge as justified true belief which is not based off false assumptions, but even this is fallacious as the prerequisite knowledge required for justification makes this a circular definition.
So if philosophers can’t even agree upon a definition of knowledge, and if one of the greatest minds to have ever lived outwardly proclaimed, “The only thing I know is that I know nothing,” I would say our own confidence in our understanding of the world is greatly unwarranted, and a hindrance to the elevation of man. If one sits quietly and entertains the question, “What do I know?”, I am confident he will soon come to a place of complete naiveté. This is terrifying, humbling and at the same time inspiring. Here is a simple example of our misidentification with labels:
When we look up at the night sky, we see stars. We “know” they are stars, and leave it at that. Walk outside tonight, and once again look at that star, but don’t call it a star. When we name something, we claim knowledge over it, and it is that name which gets in the way of our understanding of it. Look at that star again, and this time ask what it is? Not what it is called, but what is it? If you are not paralyzed by wonder, then you are missing one of the greatest aspects of the human experience.
The ability to doubt is a skill just like any other. Doubt is the skill that leads to understanding. Doubt as much as you possibly can. Question everything, and then question some more. This is the starting point for one’s education.
It is only when we admit our ignorance that we can hope to overcome it.
I will close with the words of Isaac Newton,
“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Socrates. Isaac Newton. This is company worth keeping.