Socrates on Wisdom and Not Knowing
Perhaps you may wonder why I relate this story: it is because I am going to show you how the calumnies rose against me. For when the oracle was brought to me, I began to ask myself, What does the god mean, and what is the reading of his riddle? Certainly so far as I know myself I am not conscious of being wise in any matter great or small. What, then, does he mean by calling me the wisest? At any rate he does not lie, for that were contrary to his nature. So for a long while I was in doubt about the oracle, until at length I bethought me of the following method of testing it. I went straight to one of our reputed wise men, thinking that here, if anywhere, I should be able to refute the oracle and say to the god, Look youl this man is wiser than I, and yet you call me wisest. Well, I examined this man (never mind his name,
but my first adventure was with one of our politicians) and conversed with him, and it soon became apparent that to many people and most of all to himself he seemed quite wise, whereas in truth he was not so at all.
Thereupon I undertook to show him how he was wise in opinion only and not in reality; but I only made myself a nuisance to him and to many of those about him. So I went away reflecting that at least I was wiser than this man. Neither of us apparently knows anything much worth while, but he in his ignorance thinks he knows, whereas I neither know nor think I know.
Surely I may claim a little more of wisdom than he, in so far as I do not think I know what I do not know. After this I approached one whose character for wisdom was still higher, but with no different result; I only gained the ill will of him and a host of others.
So I went from one to another in succession, perceiving all the while that I was but making enemies, sorrowing and fearing, and yet compelled, as it were, to honour the god above all things and to prove his oracle by approaching all who were reputed to have any knowledge. And I swear by the dog,1 men of Athens — for I must declare the truth — I swear that this was
all my profit. Searching by command of the god, I found that those who had the greatest renown for wisdom were in general the most lacking of all, whereas others of no reputation were really the better and wiser men. But
1 Socrates’ favourite oath. Tradition says that Rhadamanthys forbade swearing by the gods, but permitted such a use of the names of animals.