The Wisdom of Mediocrates

The Wisdom of Mediocrates March 25, 2021

A Facebook friend who knows that I am a philosophy professor sent me a thought-provoking picture a couple of weeks ago.

I thought I knew a good deal about the ancient world, particularly ancient philosophy, but Mediocrates was a new one for me. So I did some research.

Mediocrates (around 450-370ish BCE) was the (much) younger sibling of his slightly more famous brother, Socrates. Like Socrates, everything we know about Mediocrates comes through the testimony of those who knew and appreciated him (or didn’t)—if he ever wrote anything down, we don’t have it. It is reported that many of Socrates’ followers expected Mediocrates to step into his older brother’s role as the “gadfly of Athens” after Socrates’ execution, but famously Mediocrates’ comment about following in Socrates’ footsteps was “Yeah, that ain’t happening.” Concerning the numerous dialogues that Socrates’ most famous disciple, Plato, wrote with Socrates as the main character, Mediocrates commented “Yeah, that sounds like my brother. Sort of. But not really. We didn’t hang out that much. He was a bit of a dick.”

Mediocrates apparently was a master of one-liners, many of which have somehow over the centuries made it into common parlance.

  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. As with many of the sayings attributed to Mediocrates, the reaction of his contemporaries was “What the hell does that mean?” But as a directive to pay attention to what’s most important rather than wasting time on less important matters, it isn’t that bad.
  • It is what it is. I’m sure that in his day, everyone thought that this classic from Mediocrates was just stupid. But somehow, it has become a profound reflection on the human inability to change reality. It is one of my very wise wife Jeanne’s “go to” comments on just about everything. Thank Mediocrates for the insight that, strangely enough, we are not in charge of things.
  • It isn’t over ‘til it’s over. The best response might be something like “No kidding, Captain Obvious.” But if you think about it, most of what Mediocrates said is true. No one ever said that the truth would be profound. Or interesting. It is what it is.
  • Whatever. Rumor has it that this is the word carved on Mediocrates’ tomb (which has never been found). According to a continuing Marist poll, “Whatever” has been voted as “the most annoying word of the year” annually for the past decade. That wouldn’t have been my choice, but whatever.
  • When the going gets tough, the tough get going. This is actually just a portion of the full statement, which says that “When the going gets tough, the tough get going, while everyone else goes home and says that they hadn’t wanted to go anywhere in the first place.”
  • No one ever said it would be easy. My father once told my brother and me that the following would be carved on our tombstones: “They said it couldn’t be done, and he tried and couldn’t do it.” That’s a very Mediocratesian sentiment. The reason why no one ever said it would be easy is because it isn’t. Deal with it.
  • Let me be perfectly clear. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be clear, and Mediocrates undoubtedly was opaque on occasion. But this saying has become an annoying earworm of gigantic proportions. One cannot get through an hour of any 24-7 news channel show without more than one talking head introducing her or his profound conclusion to the discussion by saying “let me be perfectly clear.” As opposed to what? “Let me obfuscate and confuse the situation even more”?
  • No pain, no gain. You might have noticed from the picture of Mediocrates that he spent a lot of time at the gym. By the way, the word “Gymnasium” means “to exercise naked.” No clothes allowed at the gym. Mediocrates also was a big sports fan (athletes also competed in the nude. Get that visual out of your head now.). Many of Mediocrates’ comments about sports competition have made their way down into the lexicon of contemporary sports announcers. Be listening for them as you watch March Madness over the next three weeks.
    • They came to play. I’ve always thought it odd that athletes would come a sporting event for any reason other than to play, but apparently in ancient Greece some athletes just showed up and stood around doing nothing (completely naked). Those who “came to play” tended to win more often than those who just stood around.
    • They took it to the next level. This observation only works for those who have a higher level to take it to. Those who have only one level usually lose and are henceforth known as mediocrities.
    • I’ll tell you what. I’d love to be able to explain what this meant in Mediocrates’ day, what it means today, or why it has infected contemporary sports conversation and beyond. I have no idea. I’ll tell you what—your guess is as good as mine.

Given his commitment to mediocrity, it’s surprising that Mediocrates and his wisdom have had such an impact on contemporary culture. In the Urban Dictionary, a “Mediocrates” is defined as “a person of average or below-average intelligence or skill who claims to be an expert.” And we all know people like that—social media would not exist without them. Speaking of which, Mediocrates is even on Twitter (@themediocrates1), providing gems such as “Life is a journey,” “Be yourself,” “Listen to your heart,” and “Never play leapfrog with a unicorn.” I note that there have been no Meidocrates tweets since 2018, so apparently the person channeling Mediocrates has lost interest. As Mediocrates himself famously said, “that’s about par for the course.”

In my post last Tuesday, I mentioned that St. Bridget, the patron saint of Sweden, is described by “Catholic Online” as “the patroness of failures.” Without a doubt, Mediocrates is the patron saint of mediocrities, which probably makes him the most widely applicable saint in the pantheon of sainthood. The next time you dismiss an annoying conversation or detail with a well-placed “whatever,” thank Mediocrates. He’s got your back.

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