We live in an age where everyone has an opinion about anything and everything. The fact that we know little to nothing about complex subjects like international trade relations, virology, or national security has yet to stop us from having at least one or more strongly held opinions about such issues just the same.
We love being a people who are “in the know,” or at least, pretending like we are. There is not a subject matter in the world that we aren’t afraid to play a little arm-chair quarterback on every now and then. Indeed, the less we know, the more likely we are to double down on rhetoric where we pretend otherwise. Social scientists have called this the “Dunning Kruger Effect.”
Because, to us, the worst of all possible things in the world is not us b.s.’ing our way through a subject we know absolutely nothing about. Rather, it’s us living in a state of vulnerability. We’d rather pretend to know something about something than actually admit we know nothing. The thought of not knowing, or at least pretending to not know, is something that scares us to death.
Socrates Knows Nothing
The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (pronounced: “So-Crates” for you Bill & Ted Fans out there) was put on trial for “corrupting the youth of Athens.” His mere crime? Simply asking too many questions. In the end, Socrates lost his trial and was forced to commit suicide by drinking poison.
During his trial, Socrates recalls a fantastic story about how the infamous “Oracle of Delphi” remarked that Socrates was the wisest man in all of Athens. Socrates found this highly improbable and did not believe it. Because Socrates considered himself an average man of no particular wisdom, confessing he didn’t know much of anything about anything.
Socrates set out to prove the Oracle of Delphi wrong, and went on a mission in which he questioned the individuals considered the wisest in Athens: The politicians, the poets, and the artists.
Socrates talked with each of these individuals. And he questioned them at great length about all the things they knew. Or at least, all the things they thought they knew. Socrates would rigorously question all their answers, and got to the point where he was asking questions about the most basic and fundamental assumptions that all their complex answers had been built upon. And in the end, Socrates made a lot of these individuals mad, for they realized that they didn’t know how to answer even the most basic of questions regarding what they believed and why they believed it.
Socrates eventually concluded that so many of the individuals believed to be “wise” in his day didn’t actually know what they were talking about. But they pretended they did just the same, being completely unaware of their own lack of understanding regarding things they were supposed to know.
And because of this, Socrates ultimately came to believe the Oracle of Delphi was right. For all the wise men of Socrates day professed a wisdom that they did not actually have, which is no wisdom at all. Whereas Socrates on the other hand, claimed he didn’t know anything about anything… except that he was aware of the fact he didn’t know anything.
As a result, this is what made Socrates the wisest man in all of Athens. For unlike the other highly regarded men of Athens, at least Socrates was wise enough to not pretend to know something that he in fact did not.
And for this, Socrates was made to kill himself by drinking a goblet full of poison.
Know What You Do/Don’t Know
So what is my take away from this little history lesson today? Be like Socrates. Don’t feel like you always have to have an opinion on anything and everything. Just because Facebook and Twitter exist doesn’t mean you have to chime in on what everyone else is chiming in on.
And before you get a little too big for your britches, stick to commenting on the things you truly know and understand. Not simply the things you pretend to know or understand. For such is just foolishness at the end of the day.
As the old saying goes, “Stay in your lane!”
Keep an open mind. Try to learn. Be inquisitive. Ask questions, and then ask questions about your questions.
And when trying to learn new “things about things,” be sure to ask questions of people who truly are in the know and have something to share. Don’t simply ask your favorite talking head on Fox News thinks about a topic.
Ask questions from people who are happy to have you ask questions, who can stand a little scrutiny, and who can share their understanding of things with you. And listen, carefully. Listen so as to not form an opinion, but to come away with understanding.
And if you don’t know something, don’t be afraid to simply say, “I don’t know!”
For knowing that you don’t know is the beginning of so much wisdom.