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Socrates: A Warning Against Complacency

The inspiration for this article was a passing conversation with a friend about the importance of history. She was fascinated by the ancient world and did not in any way scoff at the notion of its relevance (something we Classicists are used to). We discussed some parallels between current affairs, ancient history, and more recent history, and then wondered why, when we (humans that is) so often talk about learning from history and making sure certain things ‘never happen again’ that we utterly fail. We came up with a rather paradoxical conclusion: human beings are poor learners, precisely because they think they are good learners. What we meant by this was that we become so confident we can and will learn from the past, that we ironically blinker our ability to do so, and thus we fail to do so. Perhaps we do not extract the correct lesson as a result, or falsely assume that all share our aims and that, therefore, a terrible event such as genocide CANNOT happen again. Yet it does.

This led me quietly to ponder less our approach to learning from the past than our attitude to our own knowledge. We too readily believe that are ‘armed’ with past mistakes, or that somehow ‘we know better’. In my opinion we also confuse technological advancement with true progress as beings who can truly harness the better angels of our nature for a better world.

Once again, I realized this is not so far from the message of an ancient thinker. And, as I so often I do, I return to knowledge and understanding’s martyr, Socrates. The key passage is to be found in the Apology, where Socrates explains the ‘mission’ he undertook to understand the words of the Delphic oracle, which named him the wisest man, because he knew he knew nothing. The core message was that Socrates was forever searching and learning, never satisfied that he had reached an end point.

It is interesting how Socrates describes his approach. Socrates questioned the statesmen, the poets, and the craftsmen, only to find that ‘the men of the greatest repute, were the most wanting’ in terms of knowledge. For Socrates, knowledge was understanding, not a technical or factual one. It meant a true understanding of what truly mattered to human beings. Confidence in knowledge (as those he examined were) usually went hand-in-hand with a lack of it, or a want of true understanding and care for the soul. And just maybe we could learn something from this, when we flatter ourselves that we have ‘learnt’ from history. We need to learn about ourselves, not congratulate ourselves.

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