I ended the last blog entry with a brief reference to Socrates and his famous contention that true wisdom meant knowing what you don’t know, and it’s from there I’d like to start this one.
The specific passage referred to is in Plato’s Apology, wherein Socrates defends himself after being accused by Athenians of impiety and corrupting the youth. In that passage, Socrates is referring to a message given to Chaerephon by the Oracle of Delphi, saying there is no wiser man than Socrates. On hearing this news, Socrates is baffled, and the only way he can make sense of it is that all men must be equally oblivious and foolish, but only he knows how oblivious and foolish he really is.
Maybe it seems a bit counterintuitive when phrased like that, but a friend of mine I greatly admire once told me an analogy that seems clearer. “The closer you get to the light,” he said, “the more it illuminates your own flaws.” Time has borne out this axiom for me with stark clarity. The broader my scope of knowledge and experience goes (which is, admittedly, not especially broad), the more I am exposed to the vast realm of existence and morality about which I have no clue.
I, like you, like Socrates, am a finite being, and prone to err. No matter how thoroughly I work to develop my opinions and no matter how much righteous fervor I may hold for them, I am a being of limited perspective. I cannot claim to know the truth absolutely because when I open my eyes I see a universe I have never explored, and who is to say what mysteries and revelations it may hold of which I have never conceived?
Yes, I am a finite being, and what is more I have a chronic and well-documented propensity to err. The only rule of life more certain than that I will make mistakes is that if I do not acknowledge my propensity to make mistakes, I will make bigger and worse mistakes. Yet I still do, with a frequency some might (and certain ex-girlfriends have) called hopeless. This is itself explicable due to the very fact that I am, in fact, a finite being, and prone to err.
While I do not agree with the ultimate conclusions Socrates espouses regarding justice and society, when it comes to the claim that the wisest are those who know the vastness of their own ignorance I am right there with him. One has only to grasp even an iota of the scale of our insignificance – we tiny creatures that make up a fraction of a percentage of the matter of our own planet, which is itself so small as to not even register on the scale of the universe – to come to the conclusion that we must all be fools if only because of the tininess of our perspective. And if we are all fools, then the difference between the wise man and the foolish one must be what Socrates said: the wise man knows the breadth of his foolishness, and the foolish man does not.
This, then, is the essence of wisdom – knowing that you are a finite being, and prone to err.
I think this is the strongest argument in favor of moderation (another of Socrates’s favorite subjects), if not in our views, then certainly in the tone with which we conduct our conversations about morality and justice. For, if even the wisest among us are but the most self-aware fools, how can we be sure enough of anything to state it in stark and uncompromising terms?
Yet we do, and all too often. In fact, the acceleration of this tendency is one of the dominant features of our political landscape, and one that concerns me tremendously. The dialogue with which we conduct our political debates is more and more rabidly bipolar, and to me this is a symptom of the disease Socrates preached against – the lack of awareness of our own fallibility.
One of the ongoing stories of humanity is the endlessly retold tale of families, friendships and communities torn apart by disagreements among we finite beings that ought to be so aware of our limitations (in fact, this very tale is itself a testament to the finiteness of our perspective). We argue over religion, over politics, over war, over race, over marriage, over a thousand, a thousand thousand ideals. And because we care so deeply about these things – and we should care deeply, because passion is the animator of life and one of the roads to justice – our thoughts become clouded. And one thought gets forgotten more than others.
We forget that we are finite beings, and prone to err. We forget the simple, undeniable truth that we might be wrong, that we have been wrong many times before, and that we are the same limited creatures we were then, possessed of the same flaws and limitations. We forget. And because we forget, we hurt. We hurt others and ourselves.
It is not extremism in views – it is not the existence of anarchists and communists, of ultra-liberals and ultra-conservatives – that destroys a people, that divide those who ought to be together, that drive us apart and foster misunderstanding and ultimately lead to conflict and violence. For these things there is always one cause, and one cause alone.
People lose perspective. They devalue other people to the extent that an idea becomes more important than a relationship, than the other person’s autonomy, than the other person’s life. And the tragedy is that the idea we hold so high above the value of our fellow humans is just as likely to be flawed as that of our enemy.
Because an idea is the genesis of a person, of one of us. And we are flawed, and prone to err.
By no means am I advocating nihilism or apathy. We may be foolish and error-prone, and we may make lots of mistakes, but by God we can try, can’t we? Women can vote today, and slavery is considered unconscionable, and people don’t believe that a person is inherently possessed of a “Divine Right” just because he happened to be born into the right incestuous family. We’ve made lots of mistakes, but we’ve also made progress.
But this progress has not often come through the unilateral enforcement of one person’s beliefs upon others. Revelation, one-sided evangelism and jihad have not produced increases in justice as reliably as blood, grit, sweat and tears. These have always been the best and purest guarantors of progress, and forcing yourself to sit down and hear your enemy out with an open mind takes a thousand tons more blood, grit, sweat and tears than putting a gun to his head or filling his ear with sermons.
So please, do not be moderate in your ideals. Cling to your ideals. Lose sleep over them. Suffer for them. Toil so that they do not die. Do not let your awareness of fallibility dull your thirst for justice or your passion for a better world.
But, please, also never lose sight of the fact that you may very well be wrong. Never let your conviction rob you of the respect you have for the other person’s merit and autonomy. And never let your pride (so often the bedmate of calamity) deceive you into believing that others are not just as capable of reaching the truth as you are.
Be audacious in your ideals, but be moderate in your speech. Be zealous in your pursuit of justice, but be temperate in your denunciation of others. Be ambitious in your pursuit of wisdom, but be humble in assessing your own. And always, even in the moments you are most filled with certainty and righteousness – especially then – remember.
That we are finite beings, and prone to err.