Be stupid like Socrates! (Summer in the Republic 67)

Be stupid like Socrates! (Summer in the Republic 67) August 14, 2018

An older man I knew once said to me: “I have not gone to enough school to be that wrong.”

He had a point. Some ideas are so crazy that people need “education” in order to believe them. 

Nothing is so good (not even education!)  that we cannot mess it up. Teach a man to love his neighbor and he will get confused and start empowering his neighbor in his errors, because he assumes setting boundaries cannot be loving. Learning about charity means running the higher risk that instead of charity we will end up practicing false charity.

Education is most excellent for many reasons, but one great benefit is that some things that seem obviously the case, aren’t. Our uninformed intuitions about the world are interesting and we should reflect on them, but they are often wrong. The table in front of me is solid, as far as my senses, go, but are really full of empty space.The man who says: “I don’t know x, but. . . “ is generally about to prove he does not know x by opining badly. Uneducated people often depend on prejudices dressed up as knowledge or hunches hiding out as facts.

Intuition? We mostly get the world right and education can clear up the blind spots: places where the improbable or dubious turns out to be correct. The bent stick we see turns out to be stuck into the fish tank and so only appears to be bent. Education exposes and explains the illusion.

Yet there is a danger: learning common sense is not infallible might be used by tricksters to sell us a load of folly. The insight that different cultures have different ideas about many things can be twisted into a bizarre moral relativism. “Look!” The educated man says. “There exists a tiny culture that assumes throwing battery acid into the ocean for fun is good. The implication is clear. We . . .” At this point the sophist inserts a wild moral belief that the uneducated man has too much common sense to believe. Just as education protects from the limits of common sense, so common sense can protect from intellectual speculation gone feral.

Socrates of the Republic was too thoughtful to think his first hunch was always right and too sensible to assume that elaborate theories of the establishment were always correct. How did he put it?

Socrates said he was too stupid to think injustice was better than justice. Socrates? Stupid?

What did he mean? As the father of philosophy, he did not mean he was illiterate or incapable, this was a man who read deeply and thought profoundly. Yet he had one opinion that his students thought hopeless: Socrates thought doing justice was pleasurable for its own sake not just because being just brought rewards in this life and the life to come. The old philosopher thought being just was pleasure. 

You can (almost!) see his best student roll his eyes at Socrates’ naïveté:

But the multitude does not think so. Most people consider the practice of justice a burdensome affair. They think it a task to be avoided, if possible, and performed only if necessary to maintain one’s reputation for propriety-and to collect whatever rewards such a reputation may be worth.

You are right. I know that is the common opinion; it is the opinion just now expressed by Thrasymachus when he scorned justice and praised injustice. But I am too stupid to be convinced of it, Glaucon.

Socrates is slow to recognize** what everyone else sees: he is uneducated in what the elite consensus is in Athens. He has sound intuitions: justice good, injustice bad. He sees that if you cobble together many counter-intuitive ideas into a Theory (TM), then you could start thinking injustice is better. He has not gotten the education that allows moral intuitions to be covered over with Theory.

Socrates is educated enough to examine everything, but not so educated that he can buy insanity, if the insane have the right credentials. God spare us from the intellectual insanity and give us common sense to see it! May we always be “stupid” like Socrates!


*I begin an informal summer reading of Republic using Scott/Sterling (a new translation for me). Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19. Part 20. Part 21. Part 22. Part 23. Part 24. Part 25. Part 26. Part 27. Part 28. Part 29. Part 30. Part 31. Part 32. Part 33. Part 34. Part 35. Part 36. Part 37. Part 38. Part 39. Part 40. Part 41. Part 42. Part 43. Part 44. Part 45. Part 45.5. Part 46. Part 47. Part 48. Part 49. Part 50. Part 51. Part 52. Part 52.5. Part 53. Part 54. Part 55. Part 56. Part 57. Part 58. Part 59. Part 60. Part 61. Part 62. Part 63. Part 64. Part 65. Part 66. Part 67.

** “Stupid” isn’t my preferred translation, but is what Scott/Sterling use. I like “I am slow to see. . .”

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