Socrates — What Makes Someone Wise?
Imagine you lived in a town where an ugly, big nosed and smelly man walked around undermining your intelligence.
You’re sweeping your yard or doing the laundry outside, minding your business, when this notorious man walks up to you and strikes up a conversation with you. His physical ugliness and unattractive scent do not make the greatest first impression.
You’ve heard about him before. A lot of your neighbours complained about him because he made them feel dumb. You’ve been preparing by brushing up on your studies, making sure he wouldn’t be able to stump you with any question he threw at you. This was your chance to shine to show how smart you were.
“Hello. Do you consider yourself a wise person? Do you believe that you are a smart individual?”
You answer, “Yeah sure, I guess. I wouldn’t say I’m the smartest person in the world but I think I’m doing quite well for myself.”
“Cool. I’ve been struggling with a problem for a while and I was wondering if you could help me come up with a solution. Do you believe that being deceitful is immoral?”
You chuckle and respond, “Of course! I value honesty and believe that you should never be deceitful. Anything that is deceitful is wrong and immoral. Isn’t it obvious? I’m sure any sane person would believe this.”
“Interesting. Let’s say you have a friend who wants to kill himself and has a knife handy to commit suicide. You and everyone he knows has tried to convince him otherwise, but he seems set on doing it. You obviously don’t want him to kill himself, but if you steal his knife he will lose the motivation to kill himself. Would you steal the knife?”
Taken aback, you say, “If it meant for me to save a friend, I guess I would…”
“But wouldn’t you consider that act to be deceitful?”
“Well, technically it is deceitful but — .”
“And wouldn’t that act of saving your friend by doing something deceitful be moral?”
Your meek response: “I guess so.”
“So it seems like not all deceitful acts are immoral… would you agree?”
“Yeah I guess.”
“So I guess you are not as smart as you thought you were.”
You try to fight back: “Well if you could ask me another question then I’d be happy to — .”
“Nah, I think I’ve seen enough. Have a good one.”
He winks at you and goes down the road, looking for someone else to question and potentially embarrass, while you stand there fuming. You decide to tell your friends all about the encounter and spread rumors about him. You’d make sure he wouldn’t be able to embarrass anyone ever again.
This is pretty much the story of Socrates and Euthydemus, with a little edits here and there, and one of many examples of a conversation with Socrates.
Socrates was considered a wise man because he knew that he did not know anything. The oracle of Delphi, a wise old woman, told Socrates’s friend that there was no one wiser than Socrates.
Socrates was confused and wondered — “How he could be the wisest man when he knew nothing? There must be a mistake. The oracle must have confused me for Socrates across town.”
But when he set out to find someone who was truly wiser than him, he found out the truth: no one was wiser than him because no one else was willing to admit that they knew nothing.
“Wisdom for Socrates was not knowing lots of facts, or knowing how to do something. It meant understanding the true nature of our existence, including the limits of what we can know.”
Socrates believed that people went around thinking they knew more than they actually knew, and pretended to know things that they could not truly be certain of. They took certain things as absolute truths, and never bothered to expand their knowledge of themselves and the world.
“What made Socrates so wise was that he kept asking questions and he was always willing to debate his ideas. Life, he declared, is only worth living if you think about what you are doing. An unexamined existence is all right for cattle, but not for human beings.
He constantly pushed to understand the nature of humans and the world. He exposed people who claimed to fully understand the concept of things like love, justice, bravery. What is good or bad? What does it mean to be moral or immoral? What does it mean to LOVE someone?
Do we even understand all these words that we throw around with each other daily? When we say certain things or believe in things we call “objective truths”, are they simply echoes of people smarter than us, or is it what we truly believe?
It’s easy to sit there and pretend like you understand everything. The world is not as simple as we perceive it to be. There are things we currently don’t and will never understand. We cannot sit here and act like we got it all figured out. Maybe we have an innate curiosity as man because we want to understand this strange, infinitely complex universe.
I know that I don’t know anything. But how do I actually know that I know that I don’t know anything? I can’t even know if I know that I know that I don’t know anything.
It’s hurting my brain just to even try to think about these things.
Socrates was such a burden to the people of Athens that they put him on trial for being so damn annoying.
He had a chance to say sorry and argue his way out of the trial. But Socrates had to be edgy and instead told the jury that he had done nothing wrong. In fact, they should actually be showering him with gifts and giving him free meals for the rest of his life for his dutiful service.
He had a chance to escape death if he ran away and promised to lived a quiet life, not annoying any more people. His friends begged him to take this option, but Socrates argued his way out of that and actually convinced his friend to agree that he should drink the hemlock honorably instead of trying to escape his death.
“Hell nah. I’d rather die than not question (annoy) other people.” He’d probably say and chug that hemlock like a champ.
The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living
We can learn humility from Socrates. While I don’t think Socrates was the MOST humble human to walk this planet, I do think his intellectual humility helped him become arguably the father of Western Philosophy.
He was never satisfied with what he knew and did not let the people around him be satisfied either. He told them to examine every part of their lives, and question everything everyday.
The key to attaining wisdom is to admit your ignorance. It seems paradoxical because we believe that being wise has something to do with acquiring vast amounts of knowledge. We tend to group the words knowledge and wisdom together, which leads us to confusing the two terms as synonyms.
If I had to personify the two words, I would say that the Sophists would characterize knowledge and Socrates would characterize wisdom.
The sophists were prideful in their knowledge and taught Athenians ways to improve their rhetoric and debating skills in exchange for money. The more knowledge they accumulated, the smarter they believed they were.
They thought that the more knowledge they accumulated, the more they understood the objective nature of the world.
Socrates, on the other hand, realized that the more he accumulated knowledge, the more he realized that he knew nothing. He saw through the arrogance of the Sophists and saw through their claims to know everything.
The Sophists were considered wise to the untrained eyes of the average Athenian, but Socrates exposed them every time he challenged them.
I want to be more like Socrates. I want to question the world and myself constantly, trying to understand and see through the illusions that we have placed for ourselves.
The first way to do that is to admit my ignorance in all things. To think and examine is to live.