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Wisdom Without Knowledge: Socrates Today

Socrates was the honored guest, posthumously of course, at the International Socrates Symposium held on campus in April. Co-sponsored by TCU's philosophy department and Honors Program, and UT Austin's department of classics and philosophy, the symposium featured the Whos Who of international philosophers. Alexander Nehamas, chair of the Council of Humanities and director of the Princeton Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and the program in Hellenic Studies, was the featured speaker at this year's Honors Convocation. Following is his address.

Twenty-seven scholars and intellectuals from all over the world have traveled to this campus to spend three days discussing and debating the life, personality and thought of Socrates -- a man dead for 2,400 years and one we know only by hearsay. Socrates lived in a pagan society that couldn't have existed without slavery, that hardly allowed women outside the house, that foretold the future with the entrails of dead animals and was in almost constant war with everyone living beyond its borders. [A land 170 times smaller than the state of Texas in a faraway corner of the Mediterranean, over which it was sovereign.]

Yet some of us choose to spend a large part of our life in Socrates' company. Many students here take courses devoted to him, and society at large, including this university, willingly allocates scarce resources to make such things possible. It is reasonable to ask why.

In some ways, Socrates stands in the starkest opposition to ancient Athens, and it is certain that he seemed as strange to his world as he still does to ours. His own friends, who saw him every day, composed such contradictory portraits of him that the highly divergent Greek philosophical schools could all claim to be descended from him. It was if each had seen a totally different Socrates.

Born to a culture that was mad about attractiveness, for which exercise was serious business and being fit almost a moral imperative, where political office was difficult to win without good looks, Socrates was extraordinarily ugly. His bulging eyes, snub nose, large stomach and swaying walk were already during his lifetime the stuff of legend. His society held manual labor in contempt, yet he seems to have been a stonecutter. Surrounded by people whose definition of happiness was to acquire power and wealth, he was poor, took no interest in politics unless legally required and spent his life in what seemed like idle conversation. In a world where a glorious death was the closest thing to redemption, he was executed like a criminal. By Athenian standards, his life was a failure.

But it was also a rebuke of those Athenian standards. That, at least, is what we learn from Plato's dialogues, in which Socrates' failure appears probably inspired and certainly is inspiring. Socrates' failure has gradually transformed him into a hero of our culture and proved less dismal even by Athenian standards, since posthumous glory is crucial to what makes life good and worthwhile.

In ancient Athens, political authority -- once the privilege of a landed aristocracy whose wealth and power testified to their worth, guaranteed their fitness to govern and secured their glory -- had gradually been won by all citizens. In an aristocracy, where political power is hereditary, the abilities needed to exercise it are passed from each ruling generation to the next. In a democracy, every citizen can rise to public office.

Those, then, who enter politics without a family tradition behind them must look elsewhere for knowledge of the affairs of state and for the power to convince others that they are the best representatives of their interests. For that reason, a host of scholars and intellectuals from throughout the world converged on Athens to teach its ambitious young men, for a fee, how to distinguish themselves in life. They were the "sophists."

What did the sophists teach? In the first version of a college catalogue in the Western world, one of the greatest among them, Protagoras, claimed to teach his students how to be pre-eminent both in financial affairs and political matters. What he promised, in other words, was wealth and power -- the same old aristocratic ideal, available now not just to the sons of the ruling class but to anyone who could afford his price.

Everyone in Athens knew what it was to be successful, even if they often disputed who could best teach it or even whether it could be taught at all. Everyone also knew, however, that success is not to be obtained at any price. It makes a difference if you deceive or exploit others on your way to wealth and power, if you act so as not to expose yourself to danger even for a good cause, if you act foolishly or gratify your every whim. That is not only bad strategy, it is shameful: We don't admit to our weaknesses in public unless it is to apologize for them; no teacher ever promises to show students how to cheat their way into public life. Protagoras admits that real success in business and politics requires justice and temperance. Success must be deserved.

The tension between admiring the life of the rich and powerful and suspecting that not everything the rich and powerful do is admirable does not seem to have disturbed the Athenians of the fifth century B.C. any more than it disturbs us today. Perhaps no system of values can ever be perfectly consistent, and it might be possible to live -- to make do -- with imperfection provided there is a shared understanding of the system's weaknesses and a tacit agreement not to question them beyond the breaking point. Even fine pieces of fabric can sometimes be worn at the edges.

And so, although the ancient Athenians were sometimes unable to answer questions about how best to live -- gloriously? or morally? -- they were still confident, like most of us today, that their way of life was better than anyone else's. In fact, Athens was so eager to spread its democratic values to the rest of the Greek world that it eventually found itself engaged in a long, debilitating and in the end catastrophic war against Sparta and its allies, who had no wish to adopt them.

Plato's Socrates bursts into such a world of certainty dappled by doubt, arrogance shaded by insecurity, pride tinged with anxiety, and pushes its values beyond their breaking point. He seeks sophists, politicians, generals, religious sages or rich, handsome young men with a promising future -- every one of them a prominent figure, having or making a claim to know what counts as living well. He shocks his audience by confessing that, unlike them, he lacks that sort of knowledge and begs them to teach it to him, if that is possible, so that he can apply it to himself. He can imagine, he tells them, no greater benefit, but it is not a benefit they ever confer upon him.

His relentless questions lead each one of them into startling contradiction and reveal them to be ignorant of what they claim to know. And so he undermines both what they say -- that they know how to live well -- and what they imply -- that their lives are better than others'. He paid for that with his life, which he devoted to trying to learn.

Protagoras doesn't promise to teach his students only how to win office but also how to secure a life that is as perfect as human life can be. Such a promise raises many questions: Does Protagoras really know what the best life is? Is it really possible to teach people how to be happy? Is being able to pay his fee all it takes in order to obtain happiness?

The life of depraved or corrupt politicians is not obviously admirable, but if living well requires uprightness or honesty, we might wonder whether what makes life good is politics or principles. And if politics, or any other unprincipled activity, does not lead to the good life, why pay Protagoras or anyone else instead of searching for that life ourselves, even if the search takes, as it did for Socrates, a whole life?

Socrates doesn't put all these difficult questions directly to the sophist. He only asks, with mock humility, if Protagoras is sure that success can be taught, traps him on a more elementary level and subverts his declaration of competence -- but every one of these questions is raised, for Protagoras as well as for Plato's readers, in the course of Socrates ironic questioning.

These Socratic questions continue to demand an answer because the ancient debate is uncannily connected with problems and concerns of our own. Today the sophists are alive and well. Now a sophist is not just someone who cheats in an argument; sophistry is truly serious business. It is, for example, the business of everyone who professes to teach others how to succeed at something or other, that also -- it is implicitly or explicitly promised -- will bring with it genuine satisfaction and happiness. At the crudest level, that is the promise of all those who claim that their books reveal, for a price, the secrets of the good life.

It is a sign of their popularity that The New York Times now publishes a separate best-seller list for "advice" books. Here are some of them: Self Matters ("How to reclaim one's authentic identity"), Authentic Happiness ("Using ‘Positive Psychology' to emphasize strengths and increase contentment"), The Purpose-Driven Life ("Finding the meaning of life through God") and The Power of Intention ("Ways to find spiritual solutions to life's problems"). And perhaps even a book like Rich Dad, Poor Dad ("Teaching one's children to get rich and stay rich"). It would be easy to dismiss this phenomenon, and very wrong. Someone is taking these books seriously: Rich Dad, Poor Dad has been on the best-seller list for 182 weeks, The Purpose-Driven Life for 61 and Self Matters for 44. All of them are Protagoras' descendants; those who regard them with contempt are Socrates' progeny. Except, of course, that Socrates did not dismiss Protagoras' promise; on the contrary, he made it his goal to find out whether those who professed to know and teach how best to live really had something to teach him, whether they knew what they were talking about. Confessing his own ignorance, he made that the task of a lifetime: Could anything be more important, he asked, than learning how to live well and to be happy?

Still, you might say, Socrates addressed only prominent figures, not every charlatan he happened to find on his way. Here, then, in contrast to the how-to books I have mentioned, is as serious a promise as I know, a program whose "mission" is "to educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community"; whose "vision" is "to be a prominent private university recognized for our global perspective, our diverse and supportive learning community, our commitment to research and creative discovery, and our emphasis on leadership development"; and whose "core values" are "academic achievement, personal freedom and integrity, the dignity and respect of the individual, and a heritage of inclusiveness, tolerance and service."

Many of you must have recognized here the principles of Texas Christian University. Please understand that I have not singled out your school in order to mock it or because its goals are in any way unusual; my own institution's motto, "Princeton in the Nation's Service and in the Service of All Nations," might have done as well. But it is good to strike close to home, to aim one's questions, as Socrates urged, at oneself.

And although it may seem impossible or at the very least ungrateful to question such admirable goals, it might be worth our while to recall that those of you who are enrolled in the Honors Program have been admitted on the basis of your "past performance and the promise of an equally impressive record at college" and can expect to join the ranks of "over 1,000 distinguished student-scholars who have become professionals in every field and leaders of their communities [and who] attest that the special discipline required of Honors Students helps promote success beyond the undergraduate years."

Here, then, are some questions for any institution of higher learning. Is it our purpose to create "ethical leaders and responsible citizens," as the University's mission statement says? If it is, why focus, as the Honors Program does, on academic performance, professional success and community leadership? Accomplished academics are often lacking in a strong sense of ethics and responsibility; many successful professionals and civic leaders, as we know all too well, also leave something to be desired in that area. The tension between professional and general education, between producing capable people and creating capacious individuals lies as much at the heart of higher education as it lay in that of sophistic training and, eventually, in Plato's own philosophical program, and haunts both their theory and their practice.

If universities claim to teach students how best to live, then someone in the university must know what the good life is. But if they -- if we -- know, why don't we live it ourselves? And if we do, if we believe that the life of the intellect is the best human life, why don't we turn you all into professors -- what else could we possibly want for you? Unless, of course, universities can only provide tools for professional success, in which case we should drop the pretense of any greater accomplishment. University, we would have to conclude, is just a stepping-stone to a good job, not part of a good life.

And yet Socrates' own case -- the greatest challenge to our educational practice -- may itself provide a glimpse of a more satisfying answer to these questions. In the process of searching for the good life, Socrates showed that all those who claimed to know how it is best for human beings to live actually lacked the knowledge they professed to have and, unaware of their ignorance, failed to live as they would have wanted.

By contrast, Socrates, who was aware of his ignorance, made it his life's goal to understand what living well is and his life, in turn, has seemed to many to be as good a life as anyone ever had. The best human life may be, after all, a life devoted to searching for the best life.

Socrates' search was lifelong, and perhaps, if nothing is more important than living well, it should always be so, for every one of us. The world, though, won't work that way. Socrates' own life would never have been possible without the benefits of life within society -- benefits a society made up only of people like him, refusing to participate in politics or productive labor, could never provide. But society could create a space where Socrates' questions are kept alive, a time when some of its members, at least, could ask them for themselves, and of themselves. And it has. That place, in my opinion, is the university when it functions at its best, as a Socratic institution.

I invite you to think of the university not only as a site where information is transmitted from teacher to student but also, and primarily, as a site where one has the luxury (the real luxury) of being confused and indecisive, doubtful and even suspicious of what one knows or has been told.

I invite you to think of such moments of confusion and doubt not as obstacles to the accumulation of knowledge but as stages in the growth of wisdom. When Socrates insists that, alone among the Athenians, he is ignorant of the answers to his questions, it is easy to think that he is being ironic -- that he knows them perfectly well but wants either to humiliate his opponents or spur them to discover them for themselves. Yet Socrates is totally sincere. What makes him so sure that he is ignorant? Not just a purely intellectual awareness that he can't answer some question, but the intense confusion and doubt that mark our ignorance of anything that is of importance to us. It is his confusion and doubt, which he refuses to mask, that constitute the wisdom that leads him to continue his search for the good life.

So long as the search persists, so do confusion and doubt, and since Socrates' search never ends, confusion and doubt are his constant companions. But since his search for the good life leads him to find it nowhere but in that search itself, the elements of his life of search -- confusion and doubt -- are also elements of the life he searched for -- the good human life.

Perhaps, then, it is exactly to the extent that the university, unlike Protagoras, does not -- and does not pretend to -- offer definitive answers to Socrates' questions that it can claim to be a place where people learn how to live well. It offers, necessarily, a limited and institutionalized version of the Socratic life.

Socrates' example does not dictate specific direction life must take, but an attitude toward it: a deep and persuasive concern with its effects on the person and its consequences for the values each individual claims to accept. That attitude is impossible to adopt without first experiencing confusion and doubt in all their unpleasantness, and there is no better place to begin than by questioning, as Socrates did in that not-so-alien world of ancient Athens, the nature of education and the significance of it's goals.

Such questioning, like Socrates' own, is not likely ever to reach definite answers, and any sketch of a life devoted to it will have to be full of confusion and doubt. But what does that matter?

Confusion and doubt, which mark the absence of knowledge but signal the beginning of wisdom, and may truly belong to the best years of our lives.

Alexander Nehamas is the chair of the Council of Humanities and director of the Princeton Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and the Program in Hellenic Studies. He is the author of Nietzsche: Life as Literature and translator of Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus. He also is co-editor of "Rhetoric": Philosophical Essays and author of many scholarly works.

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