On Wisdom

December 28, 2017

Let no man deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness," and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain." [1 Corinthians 3:18-20]

Upon reaching the entrance of the cave and seeing the light of the sun, the prisoner from Plato's allegory is awakened to a new reality. Now he sees everything he thinks he knows is only a construct of illusions, and that he indeed knows nothing. Socrates identified with this so intimately he has been credited with the paradox, “I know one thing: that I know nothing."

You know Chairephon. He was my friend from youth and you surely know the kind of man he was, how impulsive in any course of action. He went to Delphi at one time and ventured to ask the oracle if any man was wiser than I, and the Pythian replied that no one was wiser.

When I heard of this reply I asked myself: Whatever does the god mean? I am very conscious that I am not wise at all; what then does he mean by saying that I am the wisest? For surely he does not lie; it is not legitimate for him to do so. For a long time I was at a loss as to his meaning; then I very reluctantly turned to some such investigation as this: 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 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. After this I approached another man, one of those thought to be wiser than he, and I thought the same thing, and so I came to be disliked both by him and by many others.

After that I proceeded systematically. I realized that I was getting unpopular, but I must go to all those who had any reputation for knowledge to examine its meaning. I experienced something like this: I found that those who had the highest reputation were nearly the most deficient, while those who were thought to be inferior were more knowledgeable. I must give you an account of my journeyings as if they were labours I had undertaken to prove the oracle irrefutable. After the politicians, I went to the poets, intending in their case to catch myself being more ignorant then they. So I took up those poems with which they seemed to have taken most trouble and asked them what they meant, in order that I might at the same time learn something from them. Almost all the bystanders might have explained the poems better than their authors could. I soon realized that poets do not compose their poems with knowledge, but by some inborn talent and by inspiration, like seers and prophets who say many fine things without any understanding of what they say. The poets seemed to me to have had a similar experience. At the same time I saw that, because of their poetry, they thought themselves very wise men in other respects, which they were not.

Finally I went to the craftsmen, for I was conscious of knowing practically nothing, and I knew that I would find that they had knowledge of many fine things. In this I was not mistaken; they knew things I did not know, and to that extent they were wiser than I. But the good craftsmen seemed to have the same fault as the poets: because of his success at his craft, thought himself very wise in other most important pursuits, and this error of theirs overshadowed the wisdom they had, so that I asked myself, on behalf of the oracle, whether I should prefer to be as I am, with neither their wisdom nor their ignorance, or to have both. The answer I gave myself and the oracle was that it was to my advantage to be as I am.

What is probable is that in fact the god is wise and that his oracular response meant that human wisdom is worth little or nothing, and that when he says this man, Socrates, he is using my name as an example, as if he said: “This man among you, mortals, is wisest who, like Socrates, understands that his wisdom is worthless." [Taken from Plato's Apology of Socrates]

My third principle has duality and its first pillar is the Socratic paradox. For each idea I thought I knew, and every one I will endeavor to know, I must first accept that I know nothing. The second pillar is finding the knowledge within. In Plato's Meno, Socrates profoundly demonstrated that knowledge does not come from learning but from recollection. He took a slave who had no knowledge of geometry, showed him a square and began to ask a series of questions about the square. As the slave answered his questions, Socrates expanded the difficulty of the square and his questions until the slave could explain the geometry of squares to the philosopher.

Socrates: And yet, as we said a short time ago, he did not know?

Meno: That is true.

Socrates: So these opinions were in him all along, were they not?

Meno: Yes.

Socrates: So the man who does not know has within himself true opinions about the things he does not know?

Meno: So it appears.

Socrates: These opinions have so far just been stirred up, as in a dream, but if he were repeatedly asked these sorts of questions in various ways, you know that in the end his knowledge about these things would be as perfect as anyone's.

Meno: It is likely.

Socrates: And he will know it all without having been taught, only questioned, by finding knowledge within himself?

Meno: Yes.

Socrates: And isn't finding knowledge within oneself recollection?

Meno: Certainly.

Socrates: Must he not either have at some time acquired the knowledge he now possesses, or else have always possessed it?

Socrates attributed this recollection of knowledge to the immortal soul, although I would strike the word soul and say knowledge comes from the immortal; from the divine. Understanding this taught me to trust that everything I discover to be true (or untrue), ought to find harmony with my vexing intuition. Rumi described the same when he said:

Whenever a feeling of aversion comes into the heart of a good soul, it's not without significance. Consider that intuitive wisdom to be a Divine attribute, not a vain suspicion: the light of the heart has apprehended intuitively from the Universal Tablet. -Rumi

From where, then, does wisdom come? And where is the place of understanding? It is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air. Abaddon and Death say, “We have heard a rumor of it with our ears."

God understands the way to it, and he knows its place. For he looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. When he gave to the wind its weight and apportioned the waters by measure, when he made a decree for the rain and a way for the lightning of the thunder, then he saw it and declared it; he established it, and searched it out.

And he said to man, “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding." [Job 28:20-28]

My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.

For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice and watching over the way of his saints. Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. [Proverbs 2:1-10]

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