Few people are more renowned for their knowledge and wisdom than Socrates. Though a legendary thinker himself, the ancient Greek philosopher struggled to find the root of wisdom in the greater world around him and was executed for exposing the irrationality of his peers. His famous line, “all I know is that I know nothing” reveals Socrates’s humility in confronting his own limitations. It was this humility that led him on a quest to discover which of his contemporaries possessed wisdom and if he could learn from them.
Plato’s work The Apology describes how Socrates searches within three groups – politicians, poets, and artisans for insight. His findings can inform us where we should – and should not – look for wisdom today.
The first group Socrates entreats in his search for wisdom are the politicians. Surely those serving the public should be expected to possess a level of insight above the common man. Unfortunately, Socrates learns this is not necessarily the case. The philosopher describes his disappointing encounter with a popular statesman:
“Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him…and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me.”The Apology, Plato
Perhaps not every political leader possesses an elevated intellect, but surely some do, right? One should not judge an entire group by one encounter. Therefore, Socrates converses with other, more highly esteemed politicians to gain a better understanding of the group as a whole:
“Then I went to another who had still higher pretensions to wisdom, and my conclusion was exactly the same. Whereupon I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him….I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that others less esteemed were really wiser and better.”The Apology, Plato
Socrates’ observations apply to many places and times throughout human history. Rarely have the majority of leaders been philosopher-kings like the biblical King Solomon. History has shown the wise ruler to be an anomaly, an aspiration one can hope for in his or her lifetime but would be foolish to expect. More often, rulers are cunning, able to manipulate the emotions of the people they feign to serve in order to gain or retain power. As power bolsters pride, most who hold power are unable to humble themselves enough to grow from their faults. Therefore it is no surprise that Socrates observes that the most popular politicians are the least wise of all.
We are no doubt in the same position today. In our snarky sound-bite and 140-character-limit twitter culture, the most boisterous leaders garner viral attention while the calm, measured public servants are drowned out amongst the rage-fueled, click-driven news cycle. The lack of temperance in the public arena is palpable regardless of one’s political inclinations. Often we find our leaders passing legislation on topics they know little about or so swiftly that they don’t have time to read the legislation. This behavior could hardly be thought of as wise.
The next class Socrates turns to in his pursuit of wisdom is the poet class. Socrates recognizes the beauty and intricacy of many of the popular plays of his day and assumes that individuals capable of composing such insightful explorations of human emotion must be wise. The Apology summarizes Socrates’s thoughts on the encounter:
“After the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts…Accordingly I took them some of the most elaborate passages of their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them – thinking that they would teach me something…I am almost ashamed to confess the truth, but I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. Then I knew that not by their wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. The poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise. So I departed, conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the politicians.”The Apology, Plato
Interestingly, Socrates likens the poets to “diviners and soothsayers,” conceding that there is a genius they materialize; however this genius seems to come from something beyond themselves as they struggle to communicate the meaning of their art. He also notes how the poets believe their expertise in one area makes them competent in other areas. However, once they speak on topics outside their proficiency, their knowledge is proved narrow.
Today we observe similar behavior from our own “poet” class. Popular actors, singers, and other celebrities often venture outside their particular talents to lecture the public on political and hot-button issues currently being peddled by larger interests. Most of the time these entertainers have no expertise on these issues and simply repeat catchy slogans they’ve heard on social media. Certainly, it is not wisdom that guides individuals to speak publicly about what they know little about.
This is not to say that there is no value in the work of entertainers. We are instinctively drawn to the beauty of a melody, the technical ability of the musician, the prose of the poet, or the deep emotions conveyed in the work of a great actor. As Socrates observed, great art bestows a deep wisdom upon those who appreciate it, though we can admire art without glorifying the artist in all that they do. Their opinions on topics unrelated to their field are no more valuable than others’ opinions.
Finally, Socrates examines the artisan class, the tradesmen who worked primarily with their hands to produce material goods for the rest of the populace. Socrates states:
“At last I went to the artisans, I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things; and here I was not mistaken, for they did know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; – because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their oracle, whether I would like to be as I was, neither having their knowledge nor their ignorance, or like them in both; and I made answer to myself and to the oracle that I was better off as I was.”The Apology, Plato
Socrates reveals that the artisans do indeed have a certain wisdom when it comes to their various professions. However, like the poets, they believe that their knowledge in one craft also makes them authorities in other matters.
It may be useful to compare the artisans of Socrates’ time to the skilled tradesman of today. These groups are similar not because they occupy the same socio-economic class, but because they both are skilled in a specific craft and work primarily with their hands. These professions are often demanding, requiring workers to apprentice or attend a trade school for several years before becoming fully licensed, whereupon they frequently work more than forty hours per week. Because of this commitment they become highly skilled or “wise” in their particular trade, and their services are of great use to society. It also leaves little time for other things like politics or philosophy, so in this manner perhaps Socrates is correct in stating that they are not wise in “high matters.” However, this should not be taken as a critique of this class since the services they provide are essential, and one can hardly expect a single group to provide every function of a society.
Ultimately, Socrates’ quest leaves him unfulfilled, concluding that he is more wise than all the groups questioned simply because he at least acknowledges that he “knows nothing.” His search proves that there is no particular class or group in society that possesses a monopoly on wisdom. Rather, when one surveys the landscape of society for an enlightened sage class, whether in ancient Greece or today, they find that the majority of people harbor no special wisdom regardless of which social or economic class they fall into.
In our own discernment, we should not look to any particular group of fellow men, but to the sources of wisdom that have been passed down and survived the test of time. One source we may turn to are the Great Books, especially those that are central to the western canon like the Bible. These treasures have enriched and influenced many great minds before us, and can enrich ours as well.
Books to Read
 Title Image: Wisdom, Titian, 1560