Monday, April 24, 2006

A Socratic Interlude

EoR recently had a visit from a troll called anonymous to one of his very ancient postings (about water having a memory) who concluded its comment:
Personally I don't find it difficult - not one bit - to repeat after Socrates: I only know that I know nothing". Indeed, I find it liberating.

Try it some time.
You might like it.

This example of quote mining is an interesting variation on the Galileo Gambit, so beloved of the alternatistas, using Socrates to prove that ignorance is a desirable state. EoR, unlike anonymous, would never presume to compare himself to Socrates.

To put that statement into context: Socrates* is presenting his defence against charges of heresy and corrupting the young of Athens.
Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him -- his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination -- and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is -- for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.

So Socrates was not claiming that ignorance was good - he was merely taking his own ignorance as a starting point to elucidate knowledge and to remove that ignorance. Socrates was never supporting ignorance as a desirable state. Indeed, throughout the Dialogues, Socrates is openly satirical towards those who already claim to 'know'.

Later in the Apology he says
And therefore if you let me go now, and reject the counsels of Anytus, who said that if I were not put to death I ought not to have been prosecuted, and that if I escape now, your sons will all be utterly ruined by listening to my words -- if you say to me, Socrates, this time we will not mind Anytus, and will let you off, but upon one condition, that you are not to inquire and speculate in this way any more, and that if you are caught doing this again you shall die; -- if this was the condition on which you let me go, I should reply: Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy

and, more famously,
the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living

Or, as Bertrand Russell puts it in "A History of Western Philosophy":
The Platonic Socrates consistently maintains that he knows nothing, and is only wiser than others in knowing that he knows nothing; but he does not think knowledge unobtainable. On the contrary, he thinks the search for knowledge of the utmost importance.

After being condemned to death, Socrates sees this as desirable, since he will be able to continue his questions for eternity:
Above all, I shall be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in that; I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not.

So, yes, EoR does support the stance of Socrates to separate the wise from those who only think or pretend they are wise, to differentiate false from true knowledge, and to continually ask questions rather than accept absurd claims. Oh, and to continue to state that Socrates would have loved making fun of the newage mob.

* Of course, it is erroneous to state Socrates said this (or anything else) since he left no writings. Most of what we have about him is by Plato, who knew Socrates, but who uses him as a character in his works. Xenophon also wrote some works about Socrates, and there is a satirical reference in Aristophanes. Whether any, all or none of these is factual is conjecture.

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