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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates: A Symposium on Wisdom

Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

I know what knowledge is, but what do you mean by wisdom? If it is not the same as knowledge, is it intelligence like IQ, or is it perhaps some personality trait like modesty or prudence?

Dave Henley

Dear Dave,

I am glad that you know what knowledge is, for even that has me stumped.

But let us suppose we know, for example, that the Earth is shaped like a ball, which was indeed my premonition just before I drank the hemlock. Well, I have since learned that my dear Plato’s able student, Aristotle, came up with a demonstration for it. What was his proof? Just that, during an eclipse of the Moon, the shadow that progressively covers it is curved; and since that shadow is projected by the Earth, the Earth itself must be curved, or ‘round’, or spherical … in other words, shaped like a ball.

Very nice. It is the kind of argument which you today might call ‘scientific’, for it involves both logic and observation. But let us consider it more closely. How did Aristotle know there was such a thing as an eclipse of the Moon? Oh, that is obvious, you say, because the Earth’s shadow can clearly be seen to cover the Moon on these occasions. But how do we know that it is the Earth’s shadow covering the Moon? After all, doesn’t the Moon have phases every month, where part of it becomes darkened? We don’t think these are due to any shadow from the Earth, do we? The dark parts are just areas where the Sun’s light does not reach. So why think there is ever a shadow covering the Moon?

Well, one answer is that we can observe that an eclipse begins with a bite being taken out of the edge of the full Moon; that is, the dark part is convex. When the Moon is undergoing its cycle of phases, however, the dark part that begins to gobble up the full Moon is concave, like an advancing sickle. Furthermore, the bite advances from the left, while the sickle advances from the right. If you will then combine these phenomena with a little geometric scratching in the sand, you will find that the shadow interpretation does make sense as an account of the bite.

Even if we take the bite to be the leading edge of the Earth’s shadow, however, what entitles us to conclude that the Earth is shaped like a ball? Couldn’t the same effect be achieved if the Earth were shaped like a discus, or even a plate, for would not these also cast a curved shadow? Therefore it seems we must first postulate that the Earth is truly spherical, and not simply round, in order to prove that … the Earth is spherical!

Of course scientists believe they have worked all these things out. But I would make this simple, yet, I think, significant point: Every one of their conclusions, from ancient times to the present, has been based on assumptions. Thus, Aristotle might at first have simply taken for granted that the Moon is eclipsed by the Earth’s shadow; upon realizing he was making this assumption, he may then have tried to justify it; but as we have seen, this effort could itself have caught him up in an assumption, even the very thing he was trying to prove.

Naturally each science, and each age, believes it has gotten it all right at last. But even your Einstein, who was trying to figure out the shape of the whole universe, tacked on the cosmological constant to his theory of gravity because he assumed that the universe does not expand; then Edwin Hubble proved him wrong. That is, until a few years ago, when astrophysicists began to ponder all over again whether Hubble’s observations might not be interpreted as the effects of some fifth force of nature, more in line with Einstein’s original equation.

And so it goes. I do not believe this process will ever end. Furthermore, it is a process that we find not only in science but also in the homely details of our daily lives. Why, the other day I was out for my usual stroll, and a dog at the end of a leash walked right in front of me, almost tripping me up. “Stupid dog!” I thought to myself. But then it occurred to me: Might not my emotional reaction be based on the assumption that the dog had no good reason for stepping in front of me, or else on the assumption that I had every good reason to be walking straight ahead despite his approach? Perhaps it made as much sense for that dog to assume I would alter my trajectory as for me to assume the dog would not change his. That realization, at any rate, I take to be an example of wisdom.

But you press me to give you a definition, as I did with my interlocutors; so what if I say that wisdom is just the recognition that our claims to knowledge are always based upon assumptions? We should accordingly expect the wise person to be temperate in beliefs and, hence, the feelings and actions based on them. Yet I would also expect any paradigm of virtue to be sufficiently spirited (perhaps with a little help from a gadfly) to seek always to push back the boundary of assumptions, and sufficiently courageous, during the abiding ‘in the meantime,’ to hold convictions and to act on them despite the tentative nature of our knowledge, with its attendant possibility of error.

Yours as ever,

Dear Socrates,

I have been contacted by the editor of Philosophy Now, who wanted to consult me regarding the accuracy of some statements in your most recent submission before sending it to press. And I am glad he did!

In that column, you defined wisdom as the recognition that our claims to knowledge are always based on assumptions. Your argument made reference to a proof that the Earth is round, and in the process you attributed certain assumptions to the original author of that proof.

Well, I am he, and I deny the attributions. What have you to say to that?


Dear Aristotle,

I do apologize. It is an occupational hazard, you know, to attribute incorrect assumptions to people whose assumptions one is questioning. This is especially the case when one is attempting to carry on a dialogue with a dead person. But here you are, back among the living; and I am delighted, my dear boy.

Only, you know, some people hold that turnabout is fair play; and, as I have discovered from reading your works, you did give renditions of some of my assumptions that I would likewise resist. That was convenient for you since you thought I was safely deceased. Well, by the fates, I have leapfrogged you!

I will tell you, though, that I am second to none in my admiration for you (even though, as you can understand, I only recently learned about your previous existence, not to mention your present existence). I hope this regard is not similarly misplaced, since it stems as much from my imagination as from anything you (are reported to have) said.

Let me relate one episode that particularly captivates me. I picture you picking up a stone – for no particular reason; perhaps, given your omnicuriosity, something about its color had attracted your attention – and then, having completed your examination, however cursory, extending your arm and letting the stone fall from your overturned hand –again, with no particular import, just the whim of the moment. Suddenly there is a spark within you: “Why has the stone fallen?” you wonder. That is, why did it move downward? Why not upward? Or to one side? Indeed, why did it move at all, and not just stay put beneath your hand?

It is always potentially elucidating when someone is intrigued by what to others is a commonplace, as you were by the falling of that stone. Actually some chap from my newly adopted homeland had a similar revelation to yours a couple of millennia later when he was sitting under an apple tree. But probably every child is as amazed by the entire world. For that matter, the collective of humanity seems always to have been sufficiently impressed by the sheer existence of everything to ask implicitly, “Why did it happen?”

But you were the rare individual who devoted your whole life to such questioning. That is why I see you as an exemplar of the ideal of wisdom I sketched in my previous column. It is also, no doubt, why history has rightly dubbed you ‘The Philosopher’, for what could be a more philosophical trait than the penchant for turning assumptions into questions?

Now you have obliged me to draw out a further implication of that view of wisdom. For one kind of assumption we frequently make is about other people’s assumptions. And evidently I should have questioned more closely my own assumptions about what you must have been assuming when you proposed your proof. (Strictly speaking, I suppose, I had incorrectly inferred what you had been thinking or assuming. But let’s not quibble over terminology. I shall use ‘assumption’ in the broad sense of any belief which is held with insufficient warrant. Thus, faulty inferences blend into assumptions.) In fact, one of the more humbling aspects of my own return has been to discover the degree to which I failed to examine sympathetically the assumptions of many of my interlocutors. For some of Plato’s dialogues are not far off the mark in their depiction of me, and it is not an experience to be envied to see oneself so realistically portrayed.

Of course this should come as no surprise to me, since I have always counted myself among the fools of this world, and claimed only to have the wisdom of realizing I am a fool. My wisdom is thereby perforce limited. This is also how I got into so much trouble. For there I was, a fool, trying to persuade others that we are all fools. What a foolish thing to do! For they, not thinking themselves to be fools, took me to be insulting them. So they failed to see “where I was coming from”, but now I must recognize that I must similarly have often failed to see, or to see fully, where they were coming from. Perhaps some of them were not even so foolish as I thought!

Why, we humans are so far from being wise that we can be mistaken in our assumptions even about our own assumptions. Consider: Many of the sophists of my day were certain that they were relativists, and yet it was the work of an instant for me to show that they held quite definite views about all sorts of things. It was no better with the religious believers, who assumed that the gods were their absolute guide; but I could easily demonstrate that these people would never condone in actual life many of the behaviors they attributed to the gods. No doubt, then, I am equally deluded about some of my own convictions. I am almost ready to conclude that all of us always misunderstand ourselves and one another at a fundamental level.

So what say you and I try to arrive at a better mutual understanding at a little symposium over at my place?

Yours as ever,

Dear Socrates,

The editor of Philosophy Now has requested that I comment on your recent submission to the magazine on the subject of wisdom. Evidently he feels that you have ignored a perspective which I could adequately address, and that your column would therefore benefit from my review before it goes to press. I have now perused it and am pleased to share my reactions with you.

You define and defend wisdom as the recognition that our knowledge is based on assumptions. I suppose you consider such recognition to be a good thing because it can make us more humble and tolerant and hence open to change and improvement of our views and behaviors and institutions.

But I take issue with the goodness of such radical questioning. There is much to be said for tradition. Ideas that are widely accepted today must have withstood the persistent ‘dialectic’ of history, or they would no longer be extant. Even their variety and sometimes apparent contradiction attest to their validity, in much the same way that the virtually infinite diversity of latter-day animal species is evolutionary testimony to their suitability to their various niches.

So for you to revel in the continual uncovering of assumptions that cannot be justified at the drop of a hat by the interlocutors in your ‘rational conversations’, is to substitute a very superficial contemporary wisdom for the much deeper wisdom of the ages. Wisdom is useful knowledge that comes from experience, often long and difficult experience; this is true for the individual, and that much more so for the aggregate of society. The ability to defend such knowledge in debate is of quite secondary importance. Indeed, wisdom’s advantage can be a decided disadvantage in dialectic; for true wisdom gives us the ability to deal with life’s exigencies instantly and intuitively, whereas winning in disputation involves tracing every step deliberately and articulately, by which time we would be dead in the situations where knowledge is really needed. Tradition’s authority is therefore to be respected and not incessantly challenged. To do the latter is arrogant, foolish, and dangerous.

Yours faithfully,
Ed Burke, Dublin

Dear Ed,

Thank you for your penetrating critique. You have raised an issue which has dogged me these several millennia. A playwright of my own time and city took great pleasure in skewering me on stage on account of it. Indeed, this ultimately proved fatal to me. In effect what you are doing is asking me to become aware of one of my own most deeply held assumptions, and to question it. What is exquisitely ironic is that this assumption is none other than the value I place on examining deeply held assumptions. Am I really justified to assay it so highly?

But the irony cuts both ways. For aren’t you invoking reason in an attempt to disabuse me of an unwarranted assumption? But that is to engage me in the very kind of dialogue I have always striven to promote, and against which you appear to contend!

I will grant you this: My method can unleash forces that become difficult to control, unpredictable, not always to one’s liking, even harmful. So there is a cost. But to note only this is to ignore the cost of not using it. Which is greater?

Consider also: Your argument presumes (ah, yes: another unexamined assumption) the priority of goodness. But is it possible that truth, or the possession of it, or the pursuit of it, has more intrinsic importance than the goodness or badness that may result from pursuing or possessing it? I don’t know how we could guarantee beforehand that truth is something we would desire, for then would we not already be in possession of it? Nevertheless, it could be desirable as having value in itself; I suppose we could say it might be good in that sense.

But it is perfectly understandable that we cling to our assumptions. To discover that something we may have taken for granted for our whole life, is dubitable, or even false, can be not only startling, but also uncomfortable, distressing, tragic. Our values, our efforts, our dreams may all go down the drain. We could turn out to have been thoroughly misled, or misguided. We may even come to seem evil in the eyes of society, or in our own eyes. At a minimum, there is a pride in whatever beliefs one happens to hold.

But my reply to all of this is not to forsake my method, but to admit that it must be deftly and empathically employed. (At this I was a dismal failure.)

In closing, let me say that I find your allusion to evolution to be helpful. It does surprise me that you would make it, since Darwin’s notions have been as upsetting of the status quo as anything imaginable. But I shall follow your lead and suggest that the variety of species is indeed instructive: An alligator is no more ‘primitive’ than a human being, a gorilla no less adapted to its environment than is homo sapiens. All have stood the test of time. Just so, I am willing to agree with you that tradition has its proper place in the pantheon of legitimate influences on our thought and action: Traditions that survive are not only ‘old’. And believe me, I too feel the tug of ancient customs in my breast – far more immediately than you, I daresay!

But will you not accord my position the same respect? I can cite both our ways in support: on the one hand, reason supports my method, for does it not seem plausible that the questioning of assumptions has something to do with the human ability to inhabit not one, but a plethora of ‘environmental niches’? – today not excluding the very heavens! On the other hand, if tradition matters, look no further than my own person as testimony to the hoary heritage of reason.

Yours as ever,

Dear Socrates,

I was surprised to receive an inquiry from the editor of Philosophy Now, who thinks I am well suited to participate in a dialogue regarding the nature of wisdom. I suppose I was selected because of my intimate acquaintance with someone who, like yourself, experienced first-hand the glories and the perils of dialectic, and because I might be expected to have my own views on the subject. While these episodes of my past were very painful, I admit to having missed the spirited correspondence I had with my father. Therefore anon!

You have argued that wisdom involves questioning deeply held assumptions. To the objection that tradition should be respected, since it must have some survival value, not only for itself but for society, you replied that truth must be followed wherever it will lead us. You seemed to dismiss any qualms about that to a shallow pragmatism.

Well, my father found himself faced with this dilemma: Should he insist upon his reasoned interpretation of what he saw through his telescope, which contradicted traditional beliefs that supported the stability of society, or should he keep silent lest the world become unhinged (literally and figuratively)? Now, you would automatically favor the former, because you see reason as being on the side of truth. But it is not so clear to me that reason will always side with truth; for is it not also reasonable to place a high value on a society’s continued thriving (which, after all, made my father’s discoveries even possible)?

Moreover, I am troubled by a dialectical method such as yours that treats as secondary the feelings of the discussants. Again, this seems to be a question of what is most valuable. Why do you think that truth is superior to, for example, amity? Why believe that the main business of dialogue is to find out what’s true, rather than, say, to build stronger relationships with others? I supported my father fully in his fight, and I am happy that you also had strong support among your followers and, I hope, family. But is there not some way for us to have and to nourish mutual regard in the process of settling our differences?
Best wishes,

Suor Maria Celeste
Convent of San Matteo, Arcetri, Firenze

Dear Maria Celeste,

I am deeply moved by your plaint, which, as I have said before in this column, I do take to heart and am trying to implement during this, my ‘second chance’ above ground. But in agreeing with you, let me disagree (which, I think you will agree, is preferable to my simply disagreeing with you). For I would still like to put your insights into the service of truth. Also, allow me to remind you that I did not only argue for truth for its own sake, but also as probably having a high ‘pragmatic’ value. And you and I are trying to establish what is true, are we not?

I find your position more palatable, therefore, when the sort of dialogue you propose can be seen as furthering the cause of truth, rather than, as might at least appear to be your implication, impeding it when need be to prefer some other cause, such as social cohesion and functioning. So, for example, you could argue that a noncompetitive discussion is more likely to yield truth because it reduces intimidation. Interlocutors who are more at their ease will produce more sincere, and hence better arguments than those who are always on the defensive about possibly losing a debate. Does that sound right to you?

If so, then I would ask you to meet me half way. For while accepting the justice of that argument, I would still press the point that my accustomed sort of dialectic has its place as well. In fact, take this dialogue we are having right now. You began it with a sally – a telling one, I might add – against my way of discussing things. But did you not at the same time embody it? I believe you did, and I believe with good reason. For it is simply useful (yes, ‘pragmatic’ again, but in the service of truth) for the parties to a disagreement to take a strong stand in opposition to each other and then, spurred on by the spirit of competition, to try to defend their respective positions as best they can. This method, I maintain, will bring out the best arguments. Only when these have been exposed and scrutinized by friend and foe alike are we in a position to decide what is true.

Maria Celeste Replies : I appreciate your accommodation, so in that spirit let me also grant the reasonableness of your concern for truth. I will, then, put my concern is a different way. If it is truth you are after, then who is to decide when truth has been successfully demonstrated? When I picture your sort of dialectic, I see two contestants in an arena surrounded by an audience. Each is appealing not to the other so much as to the spectators. Thus, it is really a third party who drives the debate.

But it seems to me that an even truer spirit of dialectic involves appealing solely to your interlocutor. If you really believe in reason, then it is the person to whom you are directly speaking whom you wish to persuade. You are not trying to ‘score points’ with spectators, but instead are striving to engage the rational resources of the other party in a joint effort to know what is true. In other words, it should be more of a partnership than a competition. And surely the way to bring that off is by mutual assistance rather than attack.

Further, I would add to your point about defensiveness that not merely a ‘laying off of hands’ is called for, but an active role – as I say, mutual assistance. For one is not likely to see the merits of an ‘opponent’s’ position, to really understand it, if one is wholly unsympathetic; so you must, as it were, mentally reach out to find what to endorse, not only criticize.

Socrates Replies : Again I doff my garland to your debating skills, even as you convince me of the futility of debating.

Yours as ever,

Dear Socrates,

It seems that your views on wisdom have elicited a flurry of responses from a variety of reviewers. Your editor therefore finds himself in a quandary about how to proceed. So in a stroke of sudden enlightenment he has decided to turn to me, for I have something of a reputation for being able to resolve differences.

I have agreed to try my hand at this one, although your reputation has preceded you.

I am particularly taken with your discussion about dialectic with Suor Maria Celeste, who questioned the value of the adversarial variety you have favored. You did concede that her arguments for a less competitive and more cooperative form of discussion have merit, and I could see that you were attempting to adjust your method even then. But you were not totally convinced, as was apparent by your ironic parting compliment to her deftness at debate.

So I would like to suggest a further consideration in favor of the sister’s point of view. My experience is that opposite positions about fundamental issues exist in a dynamic tension that will never relax. Each is in fact a necessary complement of the other. And so it is hopeless and pointless for each to try to best the other; one might as well try to kick away one’s left foot with one’s right. Rather, one wants to coordinate their actions or effects … discover how they can best work together.

So, for example, when I hear one person argue that light is a wave, and another argue that it is not a wave but a particle, I think, “Why not instead explain the way in which, or under what circumstances, light behaves like a wave, and also the way in which, or under what circumstances, light behaves like a particle?” This in turn could lead to a better understanding of what it means for something to be a wave and for something to be a particle; these concepts may not be mutually exclusive after all. In any case, light is what is it; and we can only hope to understand it, like anything else, as a composite of opposites.

I know you are not much interested in natural science, so let me apply this to ethics as well. You have consistently maintained that the unexamined life is not worth living. Others have scoffed at this idea, deeming it an indulgence and selfaggrandizement by the leisure and useless class, and a source of confusion and disincentive or even an outright danger to everybody else. But is it not obvious that truth resides in both positions, and experience bears this out? So would it not be more profitable for the supposed opponents in this perennial debate to sit down together as genuine collaborators and develop their mutual thoughts in order to delineate the whole truth?

If you agree with me, then I think you will see that the sister’s method of dialogue is superior to yours, Socrates (or your erstwhile one, anyway). For hers allows and encourages both participants to help and be helped by the other to develop their respective positions, which thereby enriches the truth of the outcome by being more inclusive of reality. When you are in ‘attack mode’, you are more likely to focus on the weak points of your ‘opponent’s’ argument; but you will thereby be sidetracked from its strengths. Also, you must look carefully and lovingly into your ‘opponent’s’ position if you will discern therein the seeds of a possible synthesis of your two ‘opposing’ positions, which will be closer to the truth than your position alone.

Finally, if I may revert to an earlier discussion of yours, I believe these remarks also reveal what wisdom is. You had characterized wisdom as the recognition that assumptions underlie all of our knowledge. I agree that that can be a very useful realization, but it is only a starting point. For we can do better than cut down knowledge. I envision wisdom more positively, as the highest knowledge: It is precisely the knowledge that all things are the product of dynamic tension between opposites. If you understand this, then you shall come to know what you seek to know.

Yours in mutual regard,
Lao Tzu

Dear Lao Tzu,

You do have a way of reducing a man to silence. What is there to say when everything is true? (Or is it that everything is false?)

No, no, forgive me; I’m just teasing you. I take your point that everything is true up to a point (and hence also false to some degree). So certainly there would still be much to discuss in working out the exact respects in which each view is true and each is false. And surely this also helps to explain why experience is such an important teacher, for we cannot expect to arrive at genuine knowledge simply by debating general issues.

But, you know me: I cannot leave it at that. In fact, if you don’t mind I will employ a dialectical version of one of your martial arts. You see, I mean to use the force of your own argument to bring you to the mat. For if your main claim is true, that reality is a state of eternal tension between opposites, then how can it follow that the dialogue between you and me should come to an end … not to mention, with you as the ‘victor’? Surely it cannot. So I accept your point, which leads me not to accept it – a wonderful paradox, my friend, which I embrace whole-heartedly, for I have become much more catholic in my old age in this heady new age, when the wisdom of all times and climes is available ‘at the click of a mouse’.

But you realized all of these things before I was born; and now you are back again, like so many other sages from ancient and more recent times I have heard from. I am indeed in the blessed realm I had envisaged just prior to my death. So come join the symposium at my place. Can you catch the next flight?

Yours as ever,

Readers who would like to engage Socrates in dialogue are welcome to write to Dear Socrates, c/o Philosophy Now, or even to email him at: socrates@philosophynow.demon.co.uk Socrates will select which letters to answer and reserves the right to excerpt or otherwise edit them. Please indicate if you wish your name to be withheld.

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