Socrates’ Wisdom

Socrates, the classical Greek philosopher, was charged with and later executed for corrupting young people and for impiety against the Athenian gods. What Socrates really did, though, was challenge people’s thinking.

The Oracle of Delphi, a religious figure revered for her wisdom, was asked if she knew anyone wiser than Socrates.

The oracle replied that no one was wiser.

When Socrates learned of this statement, he was puzzled. He did not consider himself wise. On the other hand, the oracle would not be mistaken.

In order to determine what the oracle meant, Socrates talked to other Athenians—to ask them questions about themselves. In these discussions, Socrates discovered that people were far from being the authorities they were supposed to be. They did not, in fact, know what they claimed to know.

Socrates believed that he did not possess knowledge or wisdom, and in this respect, he was just like many other Athenians. But he was wiser than they were in another respect. Socrates knew that he didn’t know, whereas others (politicians, poets, and even teachers) thought they had knowledge when they had not. Socrates concluded that this was the basis for what the oracle had said.

This situation of speaking with authority—when there is none—is still prevalent today. As you listen to newscasters and reporters, take note of how they describe situations. Determine how much of what they say relates to what they think is another person’s motivation. Assessing someone else’s motivation is pure guesswork. 

When you converse about someone else’s motivation, you have fallen into Socrates’ description. You think you know, but you don’t.

To quote the late John Wooden, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”