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Posts Tagged ‘Socrates

“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom”*…

An argument for curiosity, openness, and the humility that underlies them both…

Philosophers aren’t the only ones who love wisdom. Everyone, philosopher or not, loves her own wisdom: the wisdom she has or takes herself to have. What distinguishes the philosopher is loving the wisdom she doesn’t have. Philosophy is, therefore, a form of humility: being aware that you lack what is of supreme importance. There may be no human being who exemplified this form of humility more perfectly than Socrates. It is no coincidence that he is considered the first philosopher within the Western canon.

Socrates did not write philosophy; he simply went around talking to people. But these conversations were so transformative that Plato devoted his life to writing dialogues that represent Socrates in conversation. These dialogues are not transcripts of actual conversations, but they are nonetheless clearly intended to reflect not only Socrates’s ideas but his personality. Plato wanted the world to remember Socrates. Generations after Socrates’s death, warring philosophical schools such as the Stoics and the Skeptics each appropriated Socrates as figurehead. Though they disagreed on just about every point of doctrine, they were clear that in order to count themselves as philosophers they had to somehow be working in the tradition of Socrates.

What is it about Socrates that made him into a symbol for the whole institution of philosophy? Consider the fact that, when the Oracle at Delphi proclaims Socrates wisest of men, he tries to prove it wrong. As Plato recounts it in the Apology:

I went to one of those reputed wise, thinking that there, if anywhere, I could refute the oracle and say to it: “This man is wiser than I, but you said I was.” Then, when I examined this man—there is no need for me to tell you his name, he was one of our public men—my experience was something like this: I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not. I then tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but that he was not. As a result he came to dislike me, and so did many of the bystanders. So I withdrew and thought to myself: “I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.”

If Socrates’s trademark claim is this protestation of ignorance, his trademark activity is the one also described in this passage: refuting the views of others. These are the conversations we find in Plato’s texts. How are the claim and the activity related? Socrates denies that his motivations are altruistic: he says he is not a teacher, and insists that he is himself the primary beneficiary of the conversations he initiates. This adds to the mystery: What is Socrates getting out of showing people that they don’t know what they take themselves to know? What’s his angle?

Over and over again, Socrates approaches people who are remarkable for their lack of humility—which is to say, for the fact that they feel confident in their own knowledge of what is just, or pious, or brave, or moderate. You might have supposed that Socrates, whose claim to fame is his awareness of his own ignorance, would treat these self-proclaimed “wise men” (Sophists) with contempt, hostility, or indifference. But he doesn’t. The most remarkable feature of Socrates’s approach is his punctilious politeness and sincere enthusiasm. The conversation usually begins with Socrates asking his interlocutor: Since you think you know, can you tell me, what is courage (or wisdom, or piety, or justice . . .)? Over and over again, it turns out that they think they can answer, but they can’t. Socrates’s hope springs eternal: even as he walks toward the courtroom to be tried—and eventually put to death—for his philosophical activity, he is delighted to encounter the self-important priest Euthyphro, who will, surely, be able to say what piety is…

Socrates seemed to think that the people around him could help him acquire the knowledge he so desperately wanted—even though they were handicapped by the illusion that they already knew it. Indeed, I believe that their ill-grounded confidence was precisely what drew Socrates to them. If you think you know something, you will be ready to speak on the topic in question. You will hold forth, spout theories, make claims—and all this, under Socrates’s relentless questioning, is the way to actually acquire the knowledge you had deluded yourself into thinking you already had…

It’s one thing to say, “I don’t know anything.” That thought comes cheap. One can wonder, “Who really and truly knows anything?” in a way that is dismissive, uninquisitive, detached. It can be a way of saying, “Knowledge is unattainable, so why even try?” Socratic humility is more expensive and more committal than that. He sought to map the terrain of his ignorance, to plot its mountains and its rivers, to learn to navigate it. That, I think, is why he speaks of knowledge of his own ignorance. He’s not just someone who acknowledges or admits to his ignorance, but someone who has learned to dwell within it.

Admittedly, this may seem like a paradoxical project. It’s one thing to be missing your wallet—you will know it once you’ve found it. But suppose you’re missing not only your wallet, but also the knowledge that you ever had a wallet, and the understanding of what a wallet is. One of Socrates’s interlocutors, Meno, doubts whether it’s possible to come to know anything if you know so little to begin with. If someone doesn’t know where she’s going, it doesn’t seem as though she can even take a first step in the right direction. Can you map in total darkness?

Socrates’s answer was no. Or at least: you can’t do it alone. The right response to noticing one’s own ignorance is to try to escape it by acquiring someone else’s knowledge. But the only way to do that is to explain to them why you aren’t yet able to accept this or that claim of theirs as knowledge—and that is what mapping one’s ignorance amounts to. Socrates stages an exhibition of this method for Meno by demonstrating how much geometrical progress he can make with a young slave boy by doing nothing but asking questions that expose the boy’s false assumptions. It is when he refutes others’ claims to knowledge that Socrates’s own ignorance takes shape, for him, as something he can know. What appears as a sea of darkness when approached introspectively turns out to be navigable when brought into contact with the knowledge claims of another…

Socrates saw the pursuit of knowledge as a collaborative project involving two very different roles. There’s you or I or some other representative of Most People, who comes forward and makes a bold claim. Then there’s Socrates, or one of his contemporary descendants, who questions and interrogates and distinguishes and calls for clarification. This is something we’re often still doing—as philosophers, as scientists, as interviewers, as friends, on Twitter and Facebook and in many casual personal conversations. We’re constantly probing one another, asking, “How can you say that, given X, Y, Z?” We’re still trying to understand one another by way of objection, clarification, and the simple fact of inability to take what someone has said as knowledge. It comes so naturally to us to organize ourselves into the knower/objector pairing that we don’t even notice we are living in the world that Socrates made. The scope of his influence is remarkable. But equally remarkable is the means by which it was achieved: he did so much by knowing, writing, and accomplishing—nothing at all.

And yet for all this influence, many of our ways are becoming far from Socratic. More and more our politics are marked by unilateral persuasion instead of collaborative inquiry. If, like Socrates, you view knowledge as an essentially collaborative project, you don’t go into a conversation expecting to persuade any more than you expect to be persuaded. By contrast, if you do assume you know, you embrace the role of persuader in advance, and stand ready to argue people into agreement. If argument fails, you might tolerate a state of disagreement—but if the matter is serious enough, you’ll resort to enforcing your view through incentives or punishments. Socrates’s method eschewed the pressure to persuade. At the same time, he did not tolerate tolerance. His politics of humility involved genuinely opening up the question under dispute, in such a way that neither party would be permitted to close it, to settle on an answer, unless the other answered the same. By contrast, our politics—of persuasion, tolerance, incentives, and punishment—is deeply uninquisitive…

Knowing takes radical collaboration: an openness to being persuaded as much as an eagerness to persuade: “Against Persuasion,” from Agnes Callard (@AgnesCallard)

* Socrates


As we listen and learn, we might recall that it was on this date in 1966 that the Eleventh Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party was hastily convened to advance Mao Zedong’s by then decidedly radical agenda for China– teeing up “Red August,” a series of purges of reactionary or otherwise impure thinkers. According to official statistics published in 1980, from August to September in 1966, a total of 1,772 people—including teachers and principals of many schools—were killed in Beijing by Red Guards; 33,695 homes were ransacked and 85,196 families were forced to leave the city. (1985 statistics, which included the areas immediately around Beijing, put the death toll at around 10,000.)

Red August kicked off the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, or as we tend to know it, The Cultural Revolution, which lasted until Mao’s death in 1976. Its stated goal was to preserve Chinese communism by purging alternative thought– remnants of capitalist and traditional elements– from Chinese society, and to impose Mao Zedong Thought (known outside China as Maoism) as the dominant ideology in the PRC. A selection of Mao’s sayings, compiled in Little Red Book, became a sacred text in what was, essentially a personality cult.

Estimates of the death toll from the Cultural Revolution, including civilians and Red Guards, vary greatly, ranging from hundreds of thousands to to 20 million. The exact figure of those who were persecuted or died during the Cultural Revolution, however, may never be known, as many deaths went unreported or were actively covered up by the police or local authorities. Tens of millions of people were persecuted (especially members of ethnic minorities): senior officials were purged or exiled; millions were accused of being members of the Five Black Categories, suffering public humiliation, imprisonment, torture, hard labor, seizure of property, and sometimes execution or harassment into suicide; intellectuals were considered the “Stinking Old Ninth” and were widely persecuted—notable scholars and scientists were killed or committed suicide. Schools and universities were closed. And over 10 million urban “intellectual youths were sent to rural areas in the Down to the Countryside Movement.


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August 1, 2021 at 1:00 am

Carrying the World on Your Shoulders: It’s All About the Ink, Part Two…


Tattoos have been with us since Prehistoric times; indeed, early tattoos were a kind of prehistory:  for example, 5th century BCE Iron Age corpses found preserved in frozen tombs (on the Ukok plateau in the Altai mountains in Siberia) are festooned with depictions of hunting and prey. Tattoos have been capturing world views and memorializing events (along with more personal passions, of course) ever since.

For much of the modern era in the West, tattoos were the preserve of outliers (e.g., seamen) and outlaws– until the latter half of the 20th century: in 1936, only 6% of Americans had a tattoo; in 2003, that percentage had risen to 16%; and by 2008, 36% of Americans 18 to 25 had a tattoo, rising to 40% for 26- to 40-year-olds.

As tattoos have become more common, their subjects have become more varied.  Part One of “It’s All About the Ink” looked at mathematically-themed tattoos.  But what about the physical world?

Our old friends at Strange Maps look at cartographic tattoos



As we contemplate getting from here to there, we might send thoughtful birthday greeting to the co-founder of Western philosophy, Socrates; today’s date– June 4– is the best guess* as to the date of his birth in 469 BCE.

I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.

– Socrates, quoted by Plutarch


* Socrates’s birthday was specified by Apollodoros the Chronographer:  the fourth year of the 77th Olympiad, the Archonship of Apsephionos, the Sixth day of the Attic Month Thargelion (i.e. the birthday of the goddess Artemis).  Athenian months ran from New Moon to New Moon (roughly mid month to mid month), so Thargelion overlapped May and June. The Julian date was established by Eusebius.  (All this said, lunar calendars were sufficiently inaccurate– and Greeks, sufficiently unconcerned with precise birth records– that it was common practice to ascribe all children born in a twelve-month cycle the same “birthday,” which was actually just a “birth-year”; even then, some historians suggest that Socrates was born in 470 BCE, not 469.)

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June 4, 2012 at 1:01 am

I forget…

 source: Flickr/Lord Rex

As we worry about the skills being lost in our growing dependence on new technologies, we might contemplate Plato’s recounting of Socrates’ dialogue with Phaedrus:

Socrates: Among the ancient gods of Naucratis in Egypt there was one to whom the bird called the ibis is sacred. The name of that divinity was Thoth, and it was he who first discovered number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, as well as the games of checkers and dice, and above all else, writing.

Now, the king of all Egypt at that time was Thamus, who lived in the great city in the upper region that the Greeks call Egyptian Thebes; Thamus they call Amun. Thoth came to exhibit his arts to him and urged him to disseminate them to all the Egyptians. Thamus asked him about the usefulness of each art, and while Thoth was explaining it, Thamus praised him for whatever he thought was right in his explanations and criticized him for whatever he thought was wrong.

The story goes that Thamus said much to Thoth, both for and against each art, which it would take too long to repeat. But when they came to writing, Thoth said, “O king, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.” Thamus, however, replied, “O most expert Thoth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”

Via Lapham’s Quarterly. (C.f. also Josh Mostel’s hysterical dramatization on Media Probes, if you can find it…)

As we chill, we might recall that it was on this date in 1982 that the final episode of The Lawrence Welk Show was taped (for syndicated release on April 17).  The series aired locally in Los Angeles for four years (1951–55), then nationally for another 28 years via the ABC network (1955–71) and– supported by anti-aging tonic Geritol,  sleep aid Sominex, and laxative Serutan–in first-run syndication (1971–82).  Then in 1986, lest a generation of Americans forget the polka, Oklahoma Public Television acquired the rights and began redistributing the programs to PBS stations…  on which they run to this day.

And a one, and a two…


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February 24, 2012 at 1:01 am

Let’s get cynical…


"Cynic: an idealist whose rose-colored glasses have been removed, snapped in two and stomped into the ground, immediately improving his vision" - Rick Bayan

Cynicisn was, like the Doric column and the gyro sandwich, invented by the Greeks.  As Rick Bayan explains…

The first Cynics (we capitalize the name when we’re talking about the ancient ones) were students of a now-obscure philosopher named Antisthenes, who in turn was a student of the illustrious Socrates. Like Socrates, the Cynics believed that virtue was the greatest good. But they took it a step further than the old master, who would merely challenge unsuspecting folks to good-natured debates and let their own foolishness trip them up.

The Cynics were more blunt when it came to exposing foolishness. They’d hang  out in the streets like a pack of dogs (“Cynic” comes from the Greek word for  dog), watch the passing crowd, and ridicule anyone who seemed pompous, pretentious, materialistic or downright wicked. Fiercely proud of their independence, they led disciplined and virtuous lives. The most famous of the ancient Cynics was Diogenes, who reportedly took up residence in a tub to demonstrate his freedom from material wants. This cranky street-philosopher would introduce himself by saying, “I am Diogenes the dog. I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy and bite scoundrels.” He’d use a lantern by daylight, explaining that he was searching for an honest man. Even Alexander the Great didn’t escape unscathed. When the young conqueror found Diogenes sitting in the marketplace and asked how he could help him, the old philosopher replied that “you can step out of my sunlight.”

Bayan, who believes that cynicism is as important today as ever, has created The Cynic’s Sanctuary, one of whose fascinating features is the Cynic’s Hall of Fame; arranged chronologically, by date of birth, it begins with…

Aesop (c. 600 B.C. ) Was he real or legendary? We’re not absolutely sure. Aesop may have been a slave who lived on the Greek isle of Samos; it’s said that he was slain by irate priests at the Oracle of Delphi. (He probably got himself into hot water by mocking their beliefs.) His works weren’t assembled into book form until about eight centuries after his time. No doubt numerous ancient storytellers added to the collection along the way. But the reputed author of the world’s most famous fables — man or legend — has to stand as literature’s great proto-Cynic. His brief moral tales are sharp allegories of human folly — even when the characters are foxes, crows, mice, tortoises and hares. Aesop’s Fables teem with the wisdom and gentle mockery of someone who knows the human animal inside and out (especially our weaknesses). If you think Aesop is just for children, think again — and read him again.

Favorite quote:
“Familiarity breeds contempt.”

The roster continues through the expected (e.g., Rabelais, Voltaire, Mark Twain) and the not-so-expected (Jesus, Shakespeare, Schopenhauer)…

In times like these, it’s comforting to know that one can take refuge in The Cynic’s Sanctuary.


As we memorize our Mencken, we might recall that it was on this date in 1780 that General Benedict Arnold betrayed the US when he wrote British General Sir Henry Clinton, agreeing to surrender the fort at West Point to the British army.  Arnold, whose name has become synonymous with “traitor,” fled to England after the plot fell through.  The British gave Arnold a brigadier general’s commission with an annual income of several hundred pounds, but only paid him £6,315 plus an annual pension of £360 because his plot had failed.  After the Revolutionary War, Arnold settled in Canada, and turned his hand to land speculation, West Indies, trade, and privateering– none of them very successfully.  He died in 1801.



Yes, but what *is* “a ball”?…

Sticking with yesterday’s focus on sports…

Coming to a stadium in North London this Sunday: a tribute/replay of Monty Python’s “The Philosophers’ Football Match,” featuring Socrates Wanderers vs. Nietzsche Albion, all in support of the Philosophy Shop’s “Four Rs” campaign (a movement to get “reasoning” added to “reading, writing. and ‘rithmetic”).  Great cause; great fun.

As we hear “Frege” and “Kant” exclaimed in response to a Yellow Card (…at least, that’s what it sounded like), we might recall that it was on this date in 1925 that John T. Scopes was served the warrant that led to his being the defendant in Scopes vs. The State of Tennessee (aka “the Scopes Monkey Trial”).

Tennessee had responded to the urgings of William Bell Riley, head of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, and passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution– the Butler Act; in response, The American Civil Liberties Union offered to defend anyone accused of violating the Act.  George Rappleyea, who managed several local mines, convinced a group of businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee, a town of 1,756, that the controversy of such a trial would give Dayton some much needed publicity. With their agreement, he called in his friend, the 24-year-old Scopes, who taught High School biology in the local school– and who agreed to be the test case.

The rest is celebrity-filled history, and star-studded drama.

Scopes in 1925

Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

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