'Wisest is he who knows he does not know'

'Wisest is he who knows he does not know' by Spooky - 2001-06-19 06:00:00

Socrates, Socrates, Socrates. The man, the Don as it were of philosophy, at least that’s what some think. Socrates is probably the most enigmatic of all the characters in the world of thought, although this was probably aided by the dramatic circumstances of his death. The important and special thing to remember when looking at Socrates and his ideas is that unlike the natural philosophers, and the ones that followed him, he never actually wrote anything down. The only knowledge we really have of Socrates came from his star pupil Plato. So we can never really be sure whether Socrates ideas are his or Plato's. What we can be sure of is that Plato was influenced massively by Socrates, so we can be pretty sure that Socrates ideas do remain somewhere in Platonic thought. In a sense you could say that Socrates is a bit like Jesus (in historical terms at least), because we have no written testament by the man himself, only those of people that were around him at the time. Of course, I don't mean to compare Jesus and Socrates literally, but more say that they both were important people historically that conveyed a specific message that has stood through the test of time.

Socrates is best approached in context of his time. To understand his thought its best to see it set against the background in which he lived. Socrates lived in Athens. From about 450 B.C Athens had become the cultural capital of the world. Now although the natural philosphers are known as pre-Socratic, they did not all live before Socrates, some of them actually died after him. What is important though is that within the time of Socrates there was a paradigm shift in the approach of philosophy and what it could investigate. If you remember, the natural philosophers were concerned with the nature of the world, giving them a central place in the history of science. In comparison, in Athens at this time the concern was more directed at the individual, and the place that individual took in society. As a result of this shift in focus, democracy flourished in Athens (although not necessarily democracy as we may understand it). The key to democracy in Athens was that people needed to be educated in order to participate. For what is the point of having a democracy if people are too stupid to understand the implications of what it means?

As a result of the need for education many well-versed people flocked to Athens to teach others. These people were known as Sophists. Sophists literally means: 'one who is wise and informed'. The biggest characteristic the sophists had in common with the natural philosophers was that they rejected the old mythological worldview. Other than this they were not really concerned with what they thought of as fruitless philosophical speculation. They thought that although there maybe answers to man's philosophical questions, man could never really know the truth and answers, they were, for all intent and purposes, advocators of skepticism.

The sophists did concern themselves with man and society though, Protagoros (c 485-410 B.C), one of these influential sophists said, 'man is the measure of all things'. By this he meant that whether a thing is good or bad, right or wrong, it should be measured against and in relation to a mans needs. With the sophists also came the birth of agnosticism. Protagoros, on being asked about his belief in the Greek Gods is said to have answered 'The question is complex, and life is too short'.

The key element of the sophists was that they were all well-traveled men. They had visited many cities and states, in which each had vastly different rules, laws and conventions. This led them to the conclusion that actions could be one of two things, either natural or socially induced. For example, the sophists suggested that some things had to be socially induced, like modesty. The idea that modesty was innate and natural was rejected by the sophists, as they saw that modesty meant different things in different places, and thus it was a socially induced action, and not an absolute norm. As you can probably imagine, the sophists annoyed a lot of people in Athens when they pointed out that right and wrong could not have absolutes, and that absolute norms did not exist. You could say that the sophists were the first sociologists.

You may be wondering why there was the need for this digression into the sophists when I am supposed to be talking about Socrates. Well, Socrates didn't agree with the sophists. He believed that there were some absolute norms in life, and he wanted to prove to the sophists that they were wrong.

So how exactly did Socrates go about approaching this question and philosophy as a whole? The art of Socrates ideas came in his attitude. Unlike the sophists he did not want to instruct people, he wanted to discuss things with them. Socrates just asked questions. He would, it is said, often begin a conversation with someone through a question. Socrates would have an idea of what he believed the answer to be, but he would engage in discussion with people by asking them question after question. The outcome of these discussions was that Socrates often managed to get his opponents to realize the weakness of their arguments and thus use their 'reason' to see the truth. Socrates mother is said to have likened him to a midwife. For as a midwife does not actually give birth she does deliver the baby. In this sense Socrates delivered people to their reason, he helped them give birth to the correct 'insight' in their discussion. By playing dumb in these discussions Socrates was able to make people see that their opinions were flawed, this is what is known as Socratic irony.

A key distinction between Socrates and the Sophists was that Socrates was a true philosopher and the Sophists were pretenders to the throne. The Sophists often took monies for their teaching; they considered themselves to know all there was to know and not be in need of asking questions. You have probably known many people like this. I am of course referring to the likes of school teachers, and opinionated know-it-alls that are content with what they know, and believe that that is all there is too know on a subject. Sophists are those that are buried deep in the hair of the seal.[the analogy did have a purpose after all ;-)] In comparison, the true philosopher, like Socrates, admits that they know nothing, and that is what drives them. Philosopher literally means in Greek 'one who loves wisdom'.

This admission of not knowing is what drove Socrates. 'Wisest is he who knows he does not know' is the key element of Socratic thought. Socrates himself said 'One thing only I know, and that is I know nothing'. This is what made Socrates stand out above the crowd. He was scared by not knowing and so asked questions. The most subversive of people are those that ask questions. For a question can be more explosive than a thousand answers.

As I said earlier, Socrates believed the sophists were wrong about absolute norms. Socrates believed that he had an inner voice guiding him. This voice is what we today would call a conscience. For Socrates it was the conscience that proved that there were absolute norms, of say right and wrong, good and bad. 'He who knows what is good, will do good' he said. By this Socrates meant that the right insight leads to the right actions. So for Socrates, when a man does wrong he does it because he does not know better. This is why, Socrates thought, it was so important for us all to keep on learning. So that we will all learn the right insight. Unlike the Sophists, Socrates believed that peoples ability to make right and wrong actions lied in their reason and not in society.

So Socrates, from this point, believed that no one that acted against his or her better judgement could be happy. Thus, he who knows how to achieve happiness through doing right actions will by necessity listen to his reason, for why would anyone want to be unhappy?

So what do you guys and girls think? Do you think that you can live a happy life if you always do things that you know are wrong deep down? There are lots of people out in the world who do things we know are wrong, do you think these people are happy or unhappy? Is the robber with his stolen fortune happy? Do you think they have knowledge of what is right and wrong by their reason?

As I said right at the beginning, Socrates was an enigmatic man, and his dramatic death is something that helped to solidify his place in history. Do you want to know how he died? Well, Socrates found himself accused of introducing new Gods into society because of his ideas. He was also accused of 'corrupting the youth' [that one sounds familiar don't you think?] A key thing about Socrates' character was that because of his inner voice, he always protested about condemning people to death. He refused to inform on his political enemies and this led, unfortunately, to his own demise. By a slender majority, a jury of 500 found Socrates guilty. He was condemned to drink hemlock as his punishment. He could have appealed for leniency and probably have left Athens in banishment. But as you can probably guess, this was not something Socrates would likely do. Shortly after being condemned he drank the poison in the company of his friends and died.

Now, the only question I ask from all this is; was the tone of this post better for Goatboy and Pangloss? ;-)