Early in Plato’s Apology, when Socrates is explaining to the jurors how he came to be disliked by so many people in the city of Athens, he tells the story of his friend, Chairephon, who made a trip to the oracle at Delphi to ask whether any man was wiser than Socrates. The oracle answered, “No one is wiser.”
When Socrates heard this, he was suspicious. So he began to question his fellow citizens, especially those who had a reputation for wisdom, and he discovered that the people he questioned generally thought they knew much more than they did. In fact, he noticed that those who thought they knew what they were talking about were more likely to be ignorant than the people who didn’t think they knew much.
He said to himself: “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.”
This has come to be known as “Socratic wisdom,” namely, that wisdom consists in knowing what one does not know.
I had the good fortune to grow up in a small community with a large extended family. Every holiday and birthday, the family would gather together. After a meal, the men would invariably retreat to one room and the women to another. The children were free to do as they pleased, and I remember going from one room to the other listening to the conversations.
The men had two subjects of conversation: hunting and football. Occasionally, someone would bring up politics, but the discussion wouldn’t last long. The men already had their minds made up about politics. It was just “common sense,” they’d say. Then they would return to hunting and football.
The problem was, there wasn’t enough to say about those things to keep the dialogue new and interesting. By the time I was twelve years old, I had heard the story of the “Rock Lake Buck” 80 or 90 times.
He was the huge buck that was occasionally glimpsed but nobody ever got a shot at. One year they found his tracks in the snow outside the deer shack in the morning; he had been watching them through the windows while they played cards the night before.
I would hear over and over how Fran Tarkenton could throw the ball and scramble out of trouble, but he just wasn’t tough enough; if only he was as tough as Joe Kapp, nobody could beat the Vikings.
The women had endless topics to discuss: church, schools, politics, health care, children, aging, recipes, art, neighbors, television shows, books, music. If somebody brought something up, they talked about it. It didn’t matter if they knew anything about the subject. In fact, for them, the reason for talking about something seemed to be to learn more about it.
The men liked to be on solid ground, talking about things all of them were familiar with and could agree on. They talked the way they smoked cigarettes and drank whiskey, to pass the time.
The women didn’t seem to be interested in passing time, they wanted to use time, to fill it up. An opportunity to talk was an opportunity to learn something, and when I would sit in on their conversations, I would learn something too.
Even to a child it was obvious: the women weren’t embarrassed by not knowing something. If they were uncertain, they asked questions and figured it out. The men talked about common sense, but the women employed it.
Most of the essential lessons to be learned from reading the great philosophers can be confirmed in the observation of our daily lives. From Socrates we learn what the women in my childhood already knew, that the first and most important task in becoming wise is not to take a position, but to ask a question.
The Ethical Life is a twice-monthly series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.