Life Lessons from Philosophy: Socrates

ignorance knowledge philosophy plato socrates the apology the dialogs

Indeed, it is in this tradition that Western Philosophy begins, and all good philosophers comport.  But what is the meaning of this phrase: “if I know anything, it is that I know nothing at all?”  Strictly speaking, it is self contradictory.  And nobody, not even the great man himself, would posit that he did not know the names of his wife and children, or that he did not know the name of his prosecutor “Meletus,” whom he mentions, by name, throughout “The Apology.”

After years of studying Plato, it is my opinion that this phrase is more of a mantra, and a way of life.  It is a willingness to be convinced, and a readiness to be wrong.  It is the lack of these skills that likely ruined your freshman philosophy class; as freshman students love to opine, and have an inability to listen.

However, being a mantra, this phrase takes repeated contemplation to actualize.  It is not merely a sincere demeanor, or a period of eye contact, during debate.  “Knowing that you know nothing” is a form of mental and behavioral humility, requiring ever ready vigilance against your innate tendency to believe that your opinions are correct, because they are yours.

An Example, if You Please

At the risk of sounding bumptious, let me offer you an anecdote from my past.  As a freshman Phil. 101 student, I was a rabid anti-abortionist.  Much of this had to do with being brainwashed in the Christian tradition, some had to do with the logic, about which, I chose to surround myself.

Sometime after "The Apology," I read Judith Jarvis’ game changing piece: “In Defense of Abortion ."  Indeed, in this work, Jarvis assumed all of my most central anti-abortion axioms, and showed why abortion should be morally permissible nonetheless.  I have a acute recollection of finishing the piece, looking down at my shoes, and feeling sick.  Determined to prove her wrong, I was unable to internalize the meaning of her words. There was just no way that abortion, being akin to the holocaust, could be justified.  But it was.  For my psychological well being, I unjustly characterized Jarvis' work as the guile of the wicked, while I focused on some other Jesus driven agenda.

However, being a philosophy geek, I had years to practice the mantra.

Upon enrolling in a medical ethics class my junior year,  I had a tacit position on the subject, but recognized that I had not done enough research to have a strong opinion.  I found myself rereading this same article, only now, as my mind’s pathways were open, the words resonated.  After rereading the work once, I no longer leaned towards the anti-abortionists.  After the next reading (before the exam, naturally), I was convinced of Jarvis' position.  No longer did I carry righteous anger for abortion doctors, or women who elected to have the procedure.  In fact, upon researching a bit more on the subject I now espouse the opposite view entirely!  How liberating it is to be free from your own stifling opinions!

Down with the Fences

Apropos to the history of my collegiate beginnings in philosophy, my last seminar class was centered on The Dialogues.  The first day, our teacher- who loved continental philosophy word games- writes “Apology” in Greek, and below puts the translation in English.  It read: “de     /     fence.” My teacher says: “This is Socrates’ defense.  Being the first dialogue, Plato wants you to take down your fences, to prepare for what is to come.” While I doubt Plato named his dialogue “defense” with the intention of having erratic-continental-philosophers intentionally misspell the the translation, the theme of the dialogue is clear: remember the wisest man says he knows nothing at all, so take down your fences students, you’re about to get taught.

Being the 21st century, it is scientifically obvious that our brain is a complicated landscape, with power over both physical and mental causation.  And while Socrates’ famous contradiction, by necessity, cannot be true; the meaning behind the words should resonate with all good students, past and present.  If you strive for understanding, take down your fences.  You cannot be receptive to language, the diplomat of knowledge, if you have built a palisade to defend against her arrival!

How seriously do you take dusty philosophical treatises on ethics and knowledge? Do you have a favorite philosopher who informs your view on life? - (**