Thursday, October 10, 2013

No one knows nothing

First, let me dispose of Socrates because I am sick and tired of this pretense that knowing you know nothing is a mark of wisdom.

No one knows nothing. In a matter of days, babies learn to recognize their mothers.

Socrates would agree, of course, and explain that knowledge of trivia is not what he means. He means that in the great abstractions over which human beings debate, one should start without preconceived, unexamined notions, and that he alone knew this. (What an enormously arrogant claim!)

In his discussions of such matters as "What is justice?" or "What is virtue?" he took the attitude that he knew nothing and had to be instructed by others. (This is called "Socratic irony," for Socrates knew very well that he knew a great deal more than the poor souls he was picking on.) By pretending ignorance, Socrates lured others into propounding their views on such abstractions. Socrates then, by a series of ignorant-sounding questions, forced the others into such a mélange of self-contradictions that they would finally break down and admit they didn't know what they were talking about.

It is the mark of the marvelous toleration of the Athenians that they let this continue for decades and that it wasn't till Socrates turned seventy that they broke down and forced him to drink poison.

— from "The Relativity of Wrong," by Isaac Asimov.

This week I'm reading Plato's Euthyphro and Socrates' Defense as part of the coursework for Søren Kierkegaar​d — Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity.

The concept of subjectivity has not been raised in this week's lecture, but deducing from my own subject experience, I'd have to say it pervades pretty much everything. As a reader certainly I've observed that a lot of what I get out of a text depends on what I put into it.

Not just effort to understand, willingness to suspend disbelief, research into historical or biographical background, but simply mood. I can think of a few books that I approached with such seriousness that I failed to appreciate that they were intended to be comic; others that I was lighthearted about should have imbued me with sadness or heaviness. Sometimes it is the fault of the writer, not giving sufficient clues in the opening pages as to the tone in which a book ought to be read, or relying too much on the reader to carry a tone without providing the words to support it. More often than not, it's simply a matter of the wrong book at the wrong time.

And so it is with Socrates that I came with openness, enthusiasm, and humour (thinking all the time: Really? I'm taking a course on Kierkegaard? How ridiculous am I? What the hell?).

Euthyphro in particular I found funny. I picture Socrates smirking, even winking at a hypothetically more-evolved thousands-of-years-hence audience, as he mocks his victim to the point of humiliation, being deliberately obtuse and nitpicking over semantics. Sure, it's in the service of a greater good, establishing a higher truth, but it's not nice, and I wonder if sometimes he goes too far, ignoring other perhaps lesser but still valid truths that emerge along the way (for example, it's clear to me that Euthyphro values the ties that bind society over the ties that bind his family; but this potential tangent is swept away). Certainly he brings nothing positive to the interrogation — he destroys his opponent, but creates nothing in the place of the void he has unmasked.

In short, I agree with Asimov' implied assessment: Socrates is a real jerk.

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