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Socrates 1.4 – Aporia and the Wisdom of Emptiness

Aporia and the wisdom of emptiness

Plato’s early dialogues, most probably the ones closer in time and spirit to Socrates, are sometimes called the “aporetic dialogues” because of this theme.

Socrates’ interrogations lead to a condition the Greeks called ‘aporia‘ (literally translated, ‘perplexity’, ‘impasse’, ‘puzzlement’). Socrates himself refers to it as “the torpedo” and claims its “shock” is “of advantage,” intellectually speaking. But its tendency in the larger process is not only destructive. In Plato’s Meno, Socrates says of his befuddled young interlocutor that far from being harmed by the ignorance that resulted from our “causing him to doubt and giving him the torpedo’s shock,” he is “better off” for it:

At first he did not know what [he thought he knew], and he does not know even now: but at any rate he thought he knew then, and confidently answered as though he knew, and was aware of no difficulty; whereas now he feels the difficulty he is in, and besides not knowing does not think he knows…. [W]e have certainly given him some assistance, it would seem, towards finding out the truth of the matter: for now he will push on in the search gladly, as lacking knowledge; whereas then he would have been only too ready to suppose he was right….
[Having] been reduced to the perplexity of realizing that he did not know… he will go on and discover something. (Meno 84a-d, Lamb translation)

While the experience of aporia can be disturbing, for his part, Socrates modeled the ultimate peace within aporia in his confrontation with death, maintaining his curiosity and seriousness, his awe and levity. His path, and perhaps his serenity on it, disturbed the peace, in part through destroying the (over)confidence of others. But his life affirmed a constructive role for philosophy as well: For Socrates, dazzlement is an inevitable part of growing to “know thyself.” In fact, it is in large part this that Socrates considers his achievement: With courage, he sets aside the aspects of his world view that wobble under scrutiny, and in the end reports no certainties — even claiming to “know nothing.” Is it possible that it is a “wise ignorance” he has achieved? This is “Socratic ignorance.” Ignorance itself is the absence of knowledge. But Socratic ignorance is the wisdom of a courageous journeyer, whose “view of the facts” isn’t in the way of reality! Hence, even when Socrates ends empty-handed, the emptiness after moving through aporia is a kind of progress, even when it doesn’t yield new truths.

It’s also worth considering another strand of courage here: I would argue that Socratic ignorance is more than just “lack of knowledge,” but more even than an acknowledgement of that lack arising from the interrogation of one’s beliefs. The ideal of Socratic ignorance (as a philosophic “virtue”) also implies a profound desire for the Good, even a love of it.

The word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Greek ‘philosophia‘ (φιλοσοφία), which is built of an element that means loving, ‘philo-‘, and the word for wisdom, ‘sophia‘ — and it thus translates literally as the “loving of wisdom”. This is helpful; but we shouldn’t pass too quickly over understanding ‘love’ and ‘wisdom’ here. Both the word form and Socrates’ life suggest the “love” active in philosophy inspires a journey calling for courage. As we’ll see, the “wisdom,” likewise, has its “vectoral” depth, aiming not just at understanding objects in the world, but also at subjective understanding, or self-knowledge.

Apollo: a son of Zeus, he eclipsed Helios as the sun god, and became the god associated with reason, structured music, and prophecy.

“Know thyself.” This is the translation of the inscription above the Oracle’s kitchen door in The Matrix (it read, “temet nosce.” “Know thyself”). It is also the message inscribed in Greek, “Gnothi seauton,” over the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece, through which Socrates received the charge of his life’s mission, as we read in The Apology. It is what Socrates held true to because he considered it essential to a life lived well, lived rightly. In the face of death, he says:

[L]ife without this sort of examination is not worth living.

“Know thyself,” Socrates is convinced, resonates within each of us, if only as an ember with potential to ignite: We each have the capacity to respond well to life’s possibilities, through living with courage, honesty, commitment, and love, in “heart” and in “intellect” — in short, with our whole being.

Let it roll off your tongue a few times; turn it in your mind:

“Life without this sort of examination is not worth living.”

What is philosophizing? What is this sort of examination, that Socrates thinks it so important that he’d sooner face execution than stop doing it? He identifies it as the path of wisdom. I read him as presenting a love-inspired image of excellence that includes developing our ability to operate with high standards of consistency, openness, and productivity – not for angels, but for us.

Consider whether you think it’s important (and reasonable!) to probe ourselves and others about:

Consistency: Do any of my beliefs contradict each other? What am I doing to promote consistency in my thinking? Is there harmony between my thinking and my behavior patterns? These include

  • my shopping habits, including what I buy and don’t buy, and why;
  • the ways I treat people, including myself and everyone else — from intimates to those more socially distant;
  • the ways I spend time; the way I vote; what I eat;

and more.

Openness: Perfect consistency is arguably not enough for living well. For instance, one who believes nothing matters, and behaves like it, may be consistent. But the underlying belief deserves scrutiny. So I should ask: Am I open to inquiring into the bases of my outlook and beliefs? Do I understand and take responsibility for assessing those underpinnings? Do I believe what’s easiest or most convenient, or do I make an effort to see beyond those motives by considering the possibilities

  • that I’ve picked up some false beliefs along the way;
  • that my reasoning went astray; or
  • that I might even tend to turn away or “shut down intellectually” when I hear something that challenges my habitual thinking?

How open am I to perspectives in tension with my everyday thinking, beyond those of my circle of friends and mainstream media? In what ways do I test my beliefs? Are my practices in these areas “good enough”?

Arete was given face as a minor Greek goddess, sister to Harmonia. Here she stands sculpted at the Library of Celsus — a wealthy Roman Senator — built in Ephesus (in contemporary Turkey) at the beginning of the second century of the common era. And there I am next to her.

Productivity: As gardeners and doctors, musicians and athletes, we go to some trouble to cultivate healthy plants and bodies, and skilled hands and feet. These are the goods at which those disciplines aim. According to Socrates, as people, we ought similarly to strive for our good — for “perfection of the soul” — by honing our capacity to live well, practicing the skills that help us be our best selves, which also keep us from falling into sheep-hood in thought, behavior, and aspiration. The discipline devoted to this art is philosophy.

’Soul’ here — psyche (ψυχή), which is derived from the Greek verb for ‘to blow’ — should not necessarily to be taken to imply a literally airy or ghost-like aspect of our existence which “controls” the physical body “from within.” That conception is probably a later, Christianized development, admittedly indebted to Socrates. But apart from theorizing about what soul is, he associated it first with its special power: it’s the element capable of understanding, the element most suited to guide a life well lived. Hence, whatever else it is, it has the strongest claim to being the true self.

The Greek word for such ‘excellence’ is arete (ἀρετή), usually rendered in English as ‘virtue’. But that is a “thin” translation if it brings to mind Goody Two-Shoes. The models of arete that would have come to mind in Socrates’ day are great heroes and athletes — those who aspire and actualize their potential; they are inspiring, noble, strong, wise; and as such, they are true, beautiful, and good. In their souls, we might say, are reflected Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

Some philosophers will distinguish practical arete for wise living from theoretical arete for intellectual understanding, or divide practical arete into a list of “virtues,” or excellences of human character. But before such refinements, it’s worth considering the very idea of human excellence. It implies that just as one can be a better or worse doctor, one can be better or worse at soul care; and just as one can be healthy or sickly, one can enjoy better and worse conditions of soul. To start or progress on the path of excellence. Socrates tells us, we should develop Socratic ignorance, courageous creativity, and other excellences — and to ask ourselves:

  • Am I happy about, or even proud of, what and who I am? If not, am I working to become someone I can be proud to be?
  • What’s my attitude toward identifying and developing my capacities, whatever they may be? Am I lazy about my own physical, emotional, intellectual, or artistic growth?
  • If I am, does that matter? Is Socrates right that I am in some sense better off making my life a personal tribute to Arete?
  • Have I asked myself whether my existence matters, and if so, what makes it matter?

This is just a start. But we have begun our journey with Socrates, who calls us to care for and improve our souls; to honor the inner voice drawing us to “first questions”; to cultivate our philosopher natures.

Is wisdom the path, or the destination?

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