Rational animals, 2500 years later: Long ago and far away—indeed, it was at the dawn of the west—Plato's Socrates established several of the most basic norms which inform western thought, to the extent that that critter exists.
Today, some 2500 years later, we largely observe these norms in the breach. Despite our allegedly rational nature, we might almost seem to be a species of extremely slow learners.
To what norms do we refer? One concerns skepticism concerning intellectual or clerical authority.
Professor Lee provides the background to this foundational tale in his widely-respected "Translator's Introduction." The story starts with a proclamation by the oracle at Delphi:
LEE: The oracle at Delphi, in response to an inquiry by one of [Socrates'] admirers, had said that he was the wisest man in Greece. Socrates was sure that he was not, and set out to prove the oracle wrong.At the very dawn of the west, in a foundational act, Socrates set out to prove the oracle wrong!
"His method of doing so was to cross-question people he met about their beliefs," Lee writes as he continues. In the Apology, Plato's Socrates, on trial for his life, tells a foundational tale:
SOCRATES OF ATHENS (399 BC): When I heard [what the oracle had said], I said to myself, What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of this riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god and cannot lie; that would be against his nature.Socrates knew that he himself had no wisdom. In order to prove the oracle wrong, he set out to locate someone who did!
After a long consideration, I at last thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, "Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest."
Accordingly, I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him—his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination—and the result was as follows:
When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and 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.
So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: "Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is—for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him."
Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him.
But alas! Wherever he went, Socrates found that people with reputations for wisdom actually had no wisdom at all. But these people falsely believed themselves to be wise, and thus were less wise than he.
Beyond that, they hated Socrates for suggesting otherwise. Did we mention the fact that he was on trial for his life?
In the end, Socrates acknowledged that the oracle had gotten it right this time. As it turned out, he actually was wiser than all these others because, while he had no wisdom to speak of, he at least knew that he wasn't wise. The other people believed they were wise, when they actually weren't.
In this foundational tale, Plato's Socrates establishes a preference for the three dirty words you can't say on (cable) TV: "I don't know." He knew that he himself lacked wisdom. The various people with whom he spoke—politicians, poets and artisans—didn't know this about themselves, and in that sense were less wise.
In this foundational tale, Socrates establishes the principle of skepticism in the face of intellectual or clerical authority. Beyond that, he establishes the importance of being able to recognize and acknowledge how much you yourself don't know.
He establishes the idea that wise people know that they often don't know. Twenty-five hundred years later, this principle is observed in the breach all over our floundering public discourse. Consider what happened on C-Span's Washington Journal when Steve Scully fielded the phone calls to which we referred in yesterday's report.
As we noted, many of Scully's callers delivered orations which may not have been perfectly "rational" in every conceivable way. But in that first dozen calls, no one voiced uncertainty about who they should believe in the current contradiction between Professor Ford and Judge Kavanaugh.
Callers spilled with certainty concerning these contradictory accounts! Yesterday, we showed you substantial chunks of the comments made by callers 2, 3, 7, 11 and 12. Today, let's consider callers 8, 9 and 10, focusing on their certainty about whose account should be believed. To hear all calls, click here.
Caller 8 was Philip from North Carolina, on the Republicans line. Rather plainly, he felt he knew whose account was correct, but he never said how he knew:
PHILIP FROM NORTH CAROLINA (9/30/18): I am a Republican, but I think it's time Republicans forgave Dr. Ford. I don't believe her. She just doesn't have credibility. Pray for her, she's got a lot of trouble ahead for her because she got involved in this and stepped up. Maybe she believes that was Kavanaugh, but it wasn't."Philip, thanks for the call," C-Span's Scully said. Philip seemed sure about what had occurred, but he didn't say, and he wasn't asked, how he could be so sure.
The next call came in on the Democrats line. This caller seemed quite sure too:
KELLY FROM FLORIDA: ...Yes, I believe Ford, I believe the professor. She put a lot on the line to come out, putting out her integrity and her whole life. And Kavanaugh, he's a spoiled little boy and the Republicans are going to pay him back for helping Bush win.That could all be true, of course. But what made Kelly so certain concerning the central question at issue?
Sarah from Texas came next. She expressed high certainty too:
SARAH FROM TEXAS: Good morning. I'm glad that you're talking to me. I'd like to say that Miss Ford, she has a Ph.D., she's well educated. To come on TV and act like she did, I think she's a disgrace to the women. And I believe that Kavanaugh is telling the truth and I think that our problem with Republicans is that they're not strong enough, they don't fight back as hard as they could...We listened to the calls from Scully's "daunting dozen." It's fair to say that no one expressed any uncertainty as to whose account was accurate. Beyond that, no one was asked to justify the certainly being expressed.
Late Sunday evening, Socrates visited us in our spartan founder's quarters in an almost dreamlike incident. "Why did I waste my time back then?" the great elucidator somewhat mournfully said.
Those three dirty words—"I don't know"—were never uttered by Scully's callers. That said, the immortal Socrates proceeded to caution us thusly:
"It's easy for you modern liberals to roll your eyes at the Philips and Sarahs," he thoughtfully said. "But many of your biggest stars have been playing the game this way too!"
Tomorrow: "Incredibly credible"