The greatest wisdom lies in knowing that you know nothing—the inspiring story of Socrates
Naturally, when anybody opens up their mind to absorb more knowledge, or learn anything, they become more knowledgeable—and in many in stances, wiser! This is exactly what part of the title of this article means, especially when knowledge is gained on the platform of “knowing nothing”—or, at least, “knowing little”.
A lot of wise people have lived on the Earth, and vanished from it. Many of them left their mark, but there is one person whose story and status as one of the wisest people ever, will continue to ring strong inspiring bells in the heart of humanity—Socrates!
The major problem in today’s world, as it was during Socrates’ time in ancient Greece, was that many people who were regarded as elites, professionals, or philosophers, “knew quite a lot”—but didn’t know as much as Socrates had presumed that they knew prior to the time he interviewed them, and interacted with them intellectually.
Socrates was a common man who came from a poor background and lived in Athens of ancient Greece. He lived during a time when human beings believed so much in nature spirits whom they worshipped and called “gods”.
Socrates was not well bred; this made him a bit disadvantaged during his times; he wasn’t considered to be among the “elite class” neither. He was a polite man who—unlike the elites, professionals and philosophers—offered his services for free. He didn’t care much about being popular; he didn’t start or establish any school like the philosophers who lived after his time.
The beginning: How Socrates arrived at the conclusive and popular statement: “The greatest wisdom lies in knowing that you know nothing”
Along the journey of life, many people come across a lot of statements and beliefs, and are taught a lot of things which “might” or “might not” be true. Many people accept whatever they are told or informed, but this was never the case with Socrates.
Socrates was always inquisitive about everything and never accepted anything as true until he could prove or disprove it by himself; even the oracle at Delphi—the oracle of the ancient Greek gods—couldn’t convince him that he was the wisest person during his time.
Actually, Socrates started gaining popularity in the ancient world when the powerful oracle of Delphi declared that he was the wisest man alive. When this information spread around like wild fire, everybody wanted to know who Socrates was—even the people who had already known him as an inquisitive person who was never fed up of asking about the why, when, where, how of everything.
How would someone so inquisitive and thirsty for knowledge be the wisest man alive? How could that be? How? While people were trying to know more about Socrates, he was already busy questioning the oracle’s judgement and proclamation, and asking why he was the wisest man in the whole wide world. In fact, when he received the news, he called himself a fool—but the oracle still insisted that he was the wisest person!
The overly inquisitive Socrates was confused. Why? In terms of reputation and records, he had none; he was a novice, and nowhere near the elevated heights of the elites, professionals, philosophers, or popular Sophists of his time. On the other hand, his earthly reputation didn’t change the reputation that the lofty gods had concerning him; they esteemed him to be the wisest person, and that was the end of the discussion—the oracle of Delphi would say no more! For it had spoken as loud and as clear as usual.
Socrates’ personal search for the truth led to his conclusion that “The greatest wisdom lies in knowing that you know nothing”
As Socrates saw it, in terms of reputation and records, which the society held and still holds on high esteem, he really knew nothing at all. Socrates wouldn’t accept the oracle’s judgement; so he made a strong decision to find out why the oracle of Delphi declared he was the wisest man when the politicians and most elite people of the day didn’t even know he existed.
He made up his mind to continue being as skeptical as he used to be about everything prior to the declaration of the oracle. In order to be convinced, he decided to make it his life’s mission to put the judgement of the oracle to test. To do this, he started interviewing the greatest and most elite people in ancient Greece, and assess the type of wisdom they had. He wanted to know what stuff they were made of.
Socrates knew that if he could convincingly find someone who was wiser than himself, he would be able to disprove the wise oracle for the first time ever. In all reality, the oracle at Delphi was very powerful and believed to have never failed when making judgements or declarations.
Years later he came to a wise conclusion which is a grand lesson for all humanity
After interviewing the first person who happened to be an elite politician, Socrates concluded that—although the politician, and many people thought that the politician was wise—the politician was not really wise.
In fact, after the interview, as Socrates was walking away from the politician, he reflected in his thoughts: “Well, I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance…it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent—that I do not think that I know what I do not know.”
It was based on this insight that Socrates used to approach future interviews, and mold his unique foundation for philosophy. The masses, and the politician whom Socrates interviewed, believed that the politician was wise and knew enough to be regarded as a wise man.
Yet, after having a conversation with the man, Socrates came to the conclusion that the politician overestimated the level of the knowledge and wisdom he (the politician) possessed. In addition, the politician pretended to know things that he didn’t really know much or anything about.
In many aspects of life, the politician was regarded as being intellectually superior to Socrates, but Socrates found out that the man foolishly assumed that he knew many other things, and that his assumptions gave him the privilege to assume things beyond his specialization or subject domain.
Certainly, this type of mentality is not the hall mark of true wisdom. Maybe if King Solomon or Jesus Christ lived during the time of Socrates, and Socrates had visited them, he might have been able to disprove the oracle’s judgement because of the history of their profound wisdom—this is a subject for discussion which would be suitable for another day.
Socrates compared his wisdom with that of the politician and further concluded that he was wiser than the politician, and not because he knew more than the politician, but because, unlike the politician, he (Socrates) knew that there were many things that he (Socrates) didn’t know, and he (Socrates) admitted!
Every day afterwards, Socrates discovered that many elite people pretended to know what they had no knowledge of
To Socrates’ surprise, other politicians and elite people with the highest reputation (whom he later interviewed) were almost completely deficient of real wisdom; also, many people who had much lesser reputations were much wiser than the so-called “highly reputable elites” of the society.
It got to a point that Socrates lost belief he would ever find a wise person. Even poets of his time, when questioned, couldn’t convincingly state the meaning of the poems they wrote. When asked many questions, the poets were just as arrogant as the politicians.
With time, Socrates observed that the whole society was making a mistake by assuming that people who had a certain specialty were “wise” or “elite”. He began to believe that it was wrong to assume that people who had success or a special talent, were generally wise, or geniuses.
Socrates was perplexed by how people carried themselves so high as if they possessed all the knowledge in the world; worst still, when questioned, most of them weren’t capable of proving that they had certain knowledge they indirectly claimed to have.
Socrates discovered a lot when trying to disprove the oracle’s declaration that he was the wisest man of his time: everywhere he turned to, he found presumptuous and arrogant elite people who were only pretending to be wise, but didn’t have “real wisdom”.
Finally, Socrates believed that there was nothing spectacular about the wisdom he possessed—even though he had come to the conclusion that other people were not a wise as they claimed to be
At the end of Socrates’ attempt to disprove the oracle—which he couldn’t—he started believing that the oracle could be right after all; but even so, there wasn’t anything interesting about his wisdom that one should be too excited about.
He felt that, although other people liked to exaggerate what they knew, and show off their wisdom, he wasn’t necessarily wiser than them. He started asking himself:
- What if being wise means not having enough knowledge, and admitting that one doesn’t have enough knowledge?
- What if being wise means not having enough knowledge, and being aware of ones limitations?
- What if being wise means finding out how much one does not know?
- What if the wisest person on Earth didn’t necessarily have all or sufficient knowledge, but was someone who had the courage to admit that he knew very little, or nothing?
It is very likely that the powerful and real-life oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece was right from the very beginning when it had proclaimed that Socrates was the wisest man of his age, regardless of the fact that he was a nobody in society, and was a novice who was nowhere near the level of the so-called elite class of his time.
Whatever the oracle truly meant—which is not so clear—Socrates wanted to get clarity about it, and pursue it to the later end; and he did with all humility, simplicity and honesty. Socrates critically addressed the things that people think they know and what they really know—these are two different things that people always mix together and cause a lot of disharmony in the society—sometimes, leading to a fake society.
It is true that when compared to universal knowledge (knowledge of the universe, or knowledge of everything), we don’t know much at all; only GOD does! However, this shouldn’t stop us from exploring and learning more without being boastful or excessively assuming.
(Featured Image Credit: Pixabay.com.)