Socratic Wisdom

A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather, it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions!


I’m not convinced by those who say wisdom comes with age.

When you get old you really don’t have a clue any more. At least you shouldn’t if you were lucky enough to learn to jettison youthful pretensions. That in itself is a wonderfully liberating accomplishment, well worth the price of existence.

portrait bust of SocratesSocrates, remember, was told by the oracle of Apollo at the Temple of Delphi that he was the “wisest man in all of Greece.” That so puzzled him – since he was convinced he knew nothing – that he devoted the rest of his life trying to prove the gods wrong, asking questions of everyone he met to see if they knew more than he did.

Yes, many an expert claimed to know what he was talking about, but like a good prosecuting attorney Socrates’ persistent cross-examination quickly exposed their epistemological sloppiness.

His conclusion about being wise or not? Maybe his “wisdom” consisted in knowing his ignorance.

Ah, yes – to unlearn everything I was taught, forget everything I know: that’s my goal. Every day I try to shed another idea, belief, opinion.

The silliest person in the world is the one striding purposefully down the street toting a bag of convictions. How quick he is to tell you all about Life, God, Destiny. As if the finite imagination could ever reach out and circumscribe the Infinite! Note how these people – look, here comes one now! – invariably:square face

  • carry briefcases crammed with calendars & schedules
  • wear fancy wristwatches & tuck folded newspapers under their arms
  • stomp their feet & cheer at political rallies
  • slip greenbacks into the basket on Sundays & pose for a picture with the preacher

And not a one of them has a clue as to what Kierkegaard meant when he said, “every Christian is an agnostic, or should be.”

In my youth I myself was not without convictions. I used to arrogantly claim that “there is Meaning to Life as long as there is one more Question to be asked.” I recognize the irony but even more so now as I get older – albeit a bit more humbly – I yearn:Leftfoot

  • to know less & less
  • to empty my mind of certainty.
  • to bask in the kind of existential anxiety Kierkegaard described as “the dizziness of freedom”.
  • to pay tribute to the mysterium tremendum et fascinosum of the Unknown

They’re out there, the Know-It-Alls. Especially in this cultural climate of heated rhetoric, political swift-boating, innuendos posing as reasoned argument.  They see the world as a problem for which they alone have the solution. And they come in all flavors: naysayers, doomsdayers, conspiracy theorists, right-wing bigots, repent & meet-thy-makers, etc.

I used to like to watch the zealous climb up on a soapbox & foam at the mouth.  But no more, not since I became content with my Socratic ignorance.

I categorically refuse to engage in conversation those too timid to ask themselves:

Could it be otherwise?


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