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Socrates and the easy way to become wise


Tod Worner - published on 09/28/17

There he stood, accused.

Guilty of criminal meddling, in that he inquires into things below the earth and in the sky, and makes the weaker argument defeat the stronger, and teaches others to follow his example. (The Apology)

He worshipped strange gods, they said. He corrupted the minds of the youth, they insisted.

But Socrates denied it.

And in response, he felt compelled to tell them a story. A friend, Chaerephon, had approached the priestess at Delphi and asked if anyone was wiser than Socrates. Flatly she gazed at him and without hesitation answered, “No one.” When Chaerephon told him this, Socrates couldn’t believe it. Me? Seriously? So he went in search of a wise man. Surely upon inevitably finding a man wiser than himself, the words from Delphi would be proven wrong. Surely. But upon his first encounter with a wise man he admired – the first man he challenged with earnest questions about the nature of Truth – Socrates was surprisingly dismayed.

I gave a thorough examination to this person…and in conversation with him I formed the impression that although in many people’s opinion, and especially my own, he appeared to be wise, in fact he was not. (The Apology)

From one wise man to the next, from poets and artists to technicians and tradesmen, Socrates would roam in search of the wiser man simply by asking common-sense questions. And again and again, he was disappointed.

It seemed to me, as I pursued my investigation at the god’s command, that the people with the greatest reputations were almost entirely deficient, while others who were supposed to be their inferiors were much better qualified in practical intelligence. (The Apology)

And people would hate him for it.

The effect of these investigations of mine, gentlemen, has been to arouse against me a great deal of hostility of a particularly bitter and persistent kind, which has resulted in various malicious suggestions, including the description of me as a professor of wisdom. (The Apology)

By adopting a certain skepticism of popularly conceived “wisdom”, by opening himself to a humble search for Truth, and by pressing the matter with others he felt would put Truth above ego, Honesty above ideology, Socrates had doomed himself. And now, he would die under the haughty eyes of the prickly “wise men”.

But that was so long ago. Surely times have changed…and so have people, right?

Today, the world offers us its “wisdom”. It proudly professes its theories and insights, its iron-clad philosophies and rock solid assurances. It thumps its chest about the proper orthodoxy (a modern hard-edged “right reason”) that reasonable men and women should arrive at – must arrive at (the modern world brooks no dissent). Is this wisdom? Or will we find, as Socrates did, that what lies mere inches beneath these theories – theories which disparage man’s dignity and disdain the soul – is nothing but appetite and power…darkness and dust? Surely, modern wisdom has proudly yielded one utopian ideal after another. If only people would cooperate. If only reality would conform. In the name of enlightenment, modern wisdom has brought the guillotine, the gulag and the concentration camp. From the tomes of modern visionaries have come collectivism, racial nationalism and pitiless individualism. This is wisdom, we are told. Follow your leader. Listen to your sages.

But we ought to know better.

There is a true Wisdom and inviolable Truth awaiting us. But is not of this world. And it is not man-made. It is mysterious and paradoxical, confounding and ingenious. Not only is it brilliant and transcendent, but it is salvific. It is offered as a Grace and received as a Blessing. And it brings us all low so that we can sense how high we will be truly intended to be.

As St. Paul would write,

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.For it is written:“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,and the learning of the learned I will set aside.”Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish?For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith.For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (I Corinthians 1:18-25)

When we attempt a serious juxtaposition of the limitless nature of the Christian creed (a creed that speaks equally to our fallen state, our anxieties and insecurities as it does to our dignity, hopefulness and sense of purpose) with any alternative the modern world has to offer, we come to the sad realization that man left alone crafts tinny (tin-like, not tiny) utopias and macabre horror shows. Again and again and again.

A quote often (incorrectly) attributed to George Orwell is nevertheless true,

Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.

We know this. And so did Socrates. In fact, during his trial, he humbly admitted,

The truth of the matter, gentleman, is pretty certainly this, that real wisdom is the property of God, and this oracle is his way of telling us that human wisdom has little or no value. It seems to me that [God] is not referring literally to Socrates, but has merely taken my name as an example, as if [God] would say to us, The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless. (The Apology)

That is the great paradox: To become wise, we must become humble. To be come great, we must become small.

It’s a lesson well taught by a man accused in Greece.


But it was even better lived by a Man accused in Jerusalem.

Photo credit: The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis-David (Wikimedia Commons)

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