Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Socratic Fool

Once upon a time there was a Socratic fool who went around the marketplace conversing with various people, asking them about their most cherished beliefs and annoying most of them as he went. The problem with this fool was his stubborn resistance to the wisdom that others tried to impart to him.  People, typically old and established types, would go on and on, explaining in depth their prodigious knowledge and expertise on a particular topic (usually one associated with money-making or a respectable career-choice), sharing the wisdom that they had accumulated over a lifetime and offering up as well a smattering of "truths" and "life-lessons" that were as plain as day. Perhaps on occassion the conversation would shift into a discussion of justice or the meaning of piety or the essence of courage or the optimum social order. And when the fool pressed for definitions and clarifications, the old men would hand them out somewhat flippantly as if they were beside the point. But as they did so, the fool typically sat silent, scratching his nose and crunching his face up into a skeptical grimace. "What's the matter," they would say. "Can't you see that what I'm telling you is true? Why are you looking at me that way? Are you dense or something???." The fool would then reply: "Do you think that what you're telling me is so true because you have studied the subject in depth or because there are no contrary opinions that contradict your testimony or is it because your opinion is most familiar to yourself and therefore you have become comfortable and complacent with it such that any other point of view would seem too exotic and foreign to your own tastes." Usually, when the fool reached this juncture in the conversation, the other person, brimming with anger and discontent, would yell back at him: "So... my wisdom is not good enough for you - eh? So I can't provide you with adequate definitions?  Okay, why don't you give me some real answers then! Can you do that - FOOL? But the fool only smiled and said in his irritatingly slow drawl: "I have no answers to replace your answers. I have only my paltry knowledge that I am ignorant of those things which you claim to be quite sure of..." "Oh!" replied the other person haughtily, "so what you have to offer is mere ignorance and absence of knowledge. Your wisdom is the wisdom of the empty set. Thanks a lot fool! That's very helpful. Now we can rest content with NO ANSWERS and nothing to live by. Now we can teach the younger generation to be skeptical and non-committal, adopting surly, snarky postures so that they too can end up nay-saying everything that the older generation has to offer while affirming NOTHING themselves!" "Perhaps you have misunderstood," said the fool. "It is not ignorance as such that I offer to my fellow interlocutors. It is knowledge of such ignorance. We humans understand ourselves only by knowing the limits of our knowledge. Is that so wrong?" "Yes, it's very wrong," the  old man would reply. "What you're doing is very wrong. Because you show our opinions to be very provisional and dispensable - relevant for a day perhaps, for this time and place, but otherwise obsolete. Your words are like dynamite in the marketplace. Once people get exposed to your decadence nothing will remain sacred. We will turn into a bunch of ironists and aesthetes who don't take ourselves seriously at all - who speak only for the sake of amusing ourselves and others! Is that what you want?" The fool thought to himself. Hmmm. The original Socrates was trying to inject logic and rigor into the conversation, but this old man seems to make a good point. What has Socratic logic wrought over the course of many centuries? And what is the alternative? Enlightenment was exciting in the beginning...But what happens after everything has already been critiqued ahead of time?

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