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The Lost Art of Not Knowing Something

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“I just want to ask you a few questions.” —Socrates in Aristophanes’s play The Clouds (423 BCE)

Tell me if you’ve heard this—a head-in-scroll type always quoting Livy or Plutarch goes to the house of a terminally sick friend. His distraught wife euphemistically tells the scholar her husband has recently “departed.” The intellectual responds “When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?” Not doing it? How about this—”A guy with bad breath decides to take his own life. So he wraps his head and asphyxiates himself.” More grim than gay? Let’s try another—”A luckless eunuch got himself a hernia.” That line is kind of funny, if upsetting. All of these jokes are over 1,600 years old, from the earliest surviving joke book Philogelos, written by Hierocles and translated from the Greek by William Berg. When considering ancient humor, historian Mary Beard worries that we’re as “anxious guests at a foreign party,” as she writes in Laugher in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up, “joining in with the hearty chuckling when it seems the polite thing to do but never quite sure that [we’ve] really got the joke.” There is, however, an ancient Greek joke, of a sort, that I do find funny, though more for the fact that for two-and-a-half millennia it’s been taken so seriously. To whit—a goggle-eyed, snub-nosed, balding, short little gremlin of a man was rumored to be the wisest in Athens, which was confirmed by the Delphic Oracle. The man—known to wander the Agora berating people with annoying questions—couldn’t believe it. So, he set out to find anybody wiser than him, asking people the definitions of truth, happiness, love. Soon, however, he comes to a conclusion—they don’t know anything. As Plato writes in The Apology, “I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great or good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do.” Slight advantage Socrates. Cue the music from Curb Your Enthusiasm.

This isn’t exactly the Socrates in Ward Farnsworth’s learned, erudite, and elegant The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook, but it’s not not exactly that Socrates either. Author of Farnsworth’s Classical Rhetoric, Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor, Farnsworth’s Classical English Style, and The Practicing Stoic —all released from Boston-based independent publisher Godine in distinctive bestiary covers—this latest offering is a prologue to that last title. Just as Farnsworth explained how the ancient Stoics are invaluable, in The Socratic Method he demonstrates how the dialogues that the ancient philosopher engaged in can “help toward intelligence and [as] an antidote to stupidity,” seeing in the relentless, honest, and surprisingly humble mode a cudgel against “foolishness, cowardice, partisanship, hypocrisy, rage, vanity, and other demons.” For those whose palms get sweaty at the phrase “Socratic Method,” it perhaps brings back memories of stern law school professors in tweed responding to every answered question with yet another question, or of attending physicians berating their under-slept residents as they make hospital rounds. This is the Socratic Method practiced by Professor Charles Kingsfield of Harvard Law School who in the 1973 James Bridges’s film The Paper Chase holds up a dime and tells one unlucky student “Call your mother. Tell her there is serious doubt about you becoming a lawyer.” Farnsworth—the Dean of the University of Texas Law School—is far too delightful to imagine ever doing anything like that; instead of seeing the Socratic Method as a tool for berating, he sees it as a corrective defined by “an ethic of patience, inquiry, humility, and doubt,” a predisposition based in a “confidence that truth exists, but humility about whether he knows it.”

Socrates, like Christ, is more appreciated than emulated. As with the Nazarene, we’ve got no first-person accounts of Socrates; if the former was a creation of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (and Paul), then the latter was born from Xenophon, Aristophanes, and more than anyone his ostensible student Plato. Unlike Christ, we’ve got a decent idea of what Socrates looked like, though since ancient Greek sculptors were known to idealize the human form it raises the question of how much worse the philosopher actually was, since he’s normally depicted as a “short, stocky…. bald man,” as George Costanza described himself. A Roman carnelian gem from the first-century before the Common Era depicts Socrates as bald, bearded, and boobed, reminiscent of the grinning comedic masks of the Athenian theater. The connection between Socrates and humor should be clear, not least of all because he was an annoying gadfly who conscripted his interlocutors into philosophical dialogue, with the intent to demonstrate inconsistencies, poor definitions, and an exulted sense of their knowledge. I’d posit that there is a bit of Larry David in the philosopher. They both puncture hypocrisy, force us to question our own moral platitudes, and deign that we must defend our presuppositions, even if doing so seems rude. After all, as Plato wrote in Laches, “Anyone who is close to Socrates and enters into conversation with him is liable to be drawn into an argument,” complaining that the philosopher “will not let him go until he has completely and thoroughly sifted him.” Pretty, pretty, pretty good. Pretty good.  

“In its caustic moments the Socratic function does some of the work of the fool or court jester,” Farnsworth writes, his task is to be “offensive when the ego overstates itself. It pokes at self-importance and hubris when they need mockery.” In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades says, “If you are foolish, or simply unfamiliar with him, you’d find it impossible not to laugh at his arguments,” while Plutarch admiringly writes in On Old Men in Public Life that Socrates “played the philosopher while joking with you,” as he was the “first to show that life affords scope for philosophy at every moment, in every detail, in every feeling and circumstance whatsoever.” If the secret to humor is timing, than Socrates landed an epic delayed joke, because though he claimed to be devoid of wisdom, some 2,400 years after he was executed by the Athenian state for the supposed corruption of the youth (and his involvement in educating several of the anti-democratic leaders among the deposed Thirty Tyrants) and Alfred North Whitehead would claim in Process and Reality that the entire “European philosophical tradition… consists of a series of footnotes to [him]” (well, Plato, but it’s the same thing). How’s that for a punchline, the self-declared nudnik who created the entire Western tradition?

Such is Socratic irony, for nobody who reads the dialogues can suppress the feeling that the philosopher doesn’t actually believe his stated ignorance, and yet his methodological skepticism has long been a philosophical loadstar. Bertrand Russell writes in A History of Western Philosophy that Socrates was a “pattern to subsequent philosophers for many ages… indifferent to worldly success, so devoid of fear that he remains calm and urbane and humorous to the last moment, caring more for what he believes to be the truth than for anything else.” This is the figure depicted in Jacque-Louis David’s 1787 neo-classical masterpiece The Death of Socrates, the regal old man, arm pointing aloft as he makes another point to his distraught students while being handed a cup filled of hemlock, so honest that with his dying words he is recorded in Plato’s Phaedo as having said the he owed a rooster to a friend, so “Pay it and do not neglect it.” Some have always been a bit suspicious of this martyr to reason, this Christ of philosophy; in The Trial of Socrates, muckraking labor journalist I.F. Stone surveyed primary sources in the original Greek and concluded that his subject was a “loyal monarchist” who was executed for his anti-democratic activities, though that punishment was a “black mark for Athens and the freedom it symbolized.” Russell, meanwhile, simply called Socrates “smug and unctuous.”

Whatever his politics or personality, Socrates has remained synonymous with the idea of a philosophical life for nearly 24 centuries. Just as Christ’s advent divides history, whether we’re Christian or not, so too does Socrates cleave ancient philosophy in half. Before Socrates, philosophy was practiced by an assortment of mystics and weirdos like Pythagoras, or else it was the provenance of the rhetorically minded charlatans the Sophists, who in total disregard to the truth were interested only in teaching how to be convincing. Socrates shared much with them, particularly the merits of argumentation, but where the Sophists were only interested in winning, the former had truth in his scope (even if ever elusive). The master wrote nothing himself, and posterity records his teachings entirely through Plato, from whom it’s almost impossible to disentangle. Plato in turn taught the Macedonian philosopher Aristotle, but when the student was passed over to lead the Academy, he’d found his own group, the Lyceum. Between the two of them, Plato and Aristotle effectively separated the rest of Western philosophy amongst two camps. Enmity between an adviser and his student, the dialectic that moves scholarship forward, same as it ever was. Where Plato was otherworldly and abstract, Aristotle was pragmatic and concrete; the first was mathematical, the second was scientific; the older rational, the younger empirical; the former spiritual, and the latter physical. As with The Beatles and The Stones, you can like both, but not equally. Yet as a melody through the two, and through movements including the Stoics, Skeptics, Epicureans, and Cynics, was the example of Socrates, who modeled a method rather than a doctrine. Plato is most identified with his Theory of Forms, the idea that perceived reality is a shadow of some transcendent realm. It’s hard to parse whether this idea is Socrates’s or Plato’s. What we do know is that Socrates unequivocally demonstrated the utility of his much-vaunted method.

Farnsworth explains that this method “proceeds by questions and answer,” with Socrates “always focused on the consistency of his partners” so that he can “identify the principle behind what his partners are saying.” After Socrates has gotten his interlocutor to define whatever it is that they’re talking about—courage, virtue, justice—the philosopher “shows that the principle doesn’t cover things that it should, or that it does cover things that it shouldn’t,” while using “concrete examples to drive his reasoning.” Throughout the process Socrates never claims expertise, seeing himself and whomever the unfortunate Athenian he has cornered—and is probably just trying to buy pistachios and olives in the Agora—as being involved in collaborative process. As a representative example, consider Socrates’s cross-examination of Laches in which he asks the latter what courage is, with his unlucky partner answering that it’s a “sort of mental persistence.” With a definition given, Socrates examines it both for internal consistency and to demonstrate to Laches that this definition is incomplete, for “I don’t think that you take every instance of persistence to be courage,” since you “count courage as something rather admirable,” and yet there are forms of persistence that are obviously unintelligent, and unintelligence isn’t admirable. “If anything is harmful and dangerous, is it admirable, would you say?” asks Socrates. “No, that wouldn’t be a defensible position,” Laches answers. They go on like this for awhile until both admit that neither of them knows what courage is. This process of dialectic—the posing and answers of questions to demonstrate contradictions and to reach ever greater degrees of specific granularity—is powered by elenchus, the rhetorical maneuver of asking somebody questions that they’d agree with so as to ultimately make them identify logical inconsistencies in their original presupposition (there is a reason that law schools teach in this manner). For a contemporary example, watch Peter Falk in any episode of Columbo.

While the radical Skeptics such as Pyrrho used this method to prove the unknowability of anything, Socrates was up to something different. His intent wasn’t to continue the dialogue to a point where both parties are just as ignorant as before, but rather to reach a state of aporia, a wondrous, enlightened ignorance, though also a state of relative knowledge. The philosopher saw his difficult role in this process as rather being like a midwife. “Socratic thought is a route to wisdom but not wisdom in a box; it denies that wisdom can be fit in a box,” writes Farnsworth. What does Farnsworth want his reader to do with the Socratic Method? He makes clear that he doesn’t intend this to be societally prescriptive, all of us sitting down with our MAGA coworkers and reasoning them out of QAnon conspiracy theories through elenchus. Rather the “rightful first subject of skepticism isn’t others. It’s ourselves,” for Farnsworth argues that the true utility of the method is to feed an inner Socrates who forces us to continually refine our own beliefs, presuppositions, commitments, ethics, and ideologies. If inconsistencies are discovered we can strengthen our previously untested beliefs by further refining them; if they withstand such scrutiny, we can be confident in why we believe what we do. Maybe Socrates is smug and unctuous, maybe he isn’t all that pleasant, but he’s still somebody we need the assistance of. “There has to be an opposition party within the self,” Farnsworth writes, because the “internalized Socrates amounts to an honorable adversary.”  

The Socratic Method is scant with current day examples, preferring to bring up Epictetus and John Stuart Mill rather than Bill Maher and Ben Shapiro, which is of course a good thing. Yet it’s obvious that Farnsworth has our current discourse in mind (not least of all because he explicitly says so), and in the Socratic Method he identifies a tincture to that which ails the body politic. “If I were pressed for a one-word opposite of the Socratic method, a strong candidate would be Twitter,” he writes. With a bit of the curmudgeon about him, Farnsworth claims that social media carries “a kind of poison” within, a noxious brew of “quick reactions, easy certainties, one-liners and rage” that “craves confirmation and resents contradiction.” The author is mute about his own partisan allegiances, but it’s personally telling that as I read that description it became important to me that Farnsworth wasn’t talking about my side. Hot cheeked and frowning, I anticipated some fulsome denunciation of “cancel culture” and “social justice warriors,” which never came. Ironically, when reading over my notes for this piece, I examined a line when Farnsworth describes the danger of unexamined cultural precepts, writing that “Wretchedness can occur because points of tension in the values of the society have not yet been brought to its collective awareness in a clear enough way” and I wondered if a conservative reading The Socratic Method would think that the author was overly “woke.” Then I realized that perhaps I’d subconsciously been projecting something, that Farnsworth had made his point about the dangers of not submitting yourself to the inner Socrates and rather letting Twitter think for you.

Don’t worry, this isn’t an account of how The Socratic Method made me go conservative, far from it (nor do I think that that’s what Farnworth intends). And while it’s easy to see Farnsworth critiquing the “discourse” as bothsiderism, I think what he’s arguing is far more subtle. People who receive their deepest political commitments from memes that originate at a .ru domain address or who scour Trumpian Twitter misspellings for secret codes dropped by JFK Jr. are in need of intercessions beyond that which can be supplied by the Phaedo, but I do think Farnsworth is correct about the algorithmic conformity machine for the saner among us. Author Meghan O’Gieblyn describes the Internet’s uncanniness in her excellent book God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning, writing that while online she senses “the speed with which ideas go viral, cascading across social platforms, such that the users who share them begin to seem less like agents than as hosts, nodes in the enormous brain,” where there is an “efficiency of consensus, the speed with which opinions fuse and solidify alongside the news cycle, like thought coalescing in the collective consciousness.” Who among us has not decided, even subconsciously, what their opinion would be based on a missive from some Blue Checkmark Oracle? Who hasn’t experienced the push and pull of sentiment as drawn from the whirlpool of the newsfeed, positions coalescing as if from outside their own mind? From that perspective the Socratic Method is absolutely an antidote to the creepy hive-mindedness of the worst of digitally powered unthinkingness. The issue isn’t what the opinions are; the issue is how you arrived at them.

Because there is an innate radicalism to aporia, an affirmation not of certainty, but of less uncertainty. This isn’t utopian because it’s individual; it’s not quixotic because you can start doing it now. “The Socratic method means, among other things, asking and receiving questions fearlessly,” Farnsworth writes, “it means saying what you think, and not getting hot when others say what they think; it means loving the truth and staying humble about whether you know it.” Staying humble and being honest—those are Socrates’s most revolutionary sentiments, even if he often seemed a bit conceited. Over the last generation, activists and scholars have critiqued the Western tradition—if ever a Socratic activity—for being patriarchal, racist, colonialist, and so on. Which of course is true—it would be lying to deny those things. But the punchline at the core of that tradition is the Socratic aporia, the humble and gracious uncertainty that’s willing to interrogate away every excess, indignity, and contradiction until confronted with the unvarnished and perhaps ugly truth. Seeds for the undoing of everything that deserves to be undone within Western philosophy were first planted by Socrates. That’s the irony about reactionaries who claim to be defending the classics by denouncing “critical race theory,” or “cultural Marxism,” or deconstruction, or whatever, because they despise the subversions which those things are supposed to signify, but can you imagine anything more Socratic than subversion? Those who claim to be students in the School of Athens are most often those who screech about the corruptions of youth. Where’s that hemlock?    

A few months ago The Washington Post reported that Princeton historian Allen Guelzo argued that critical race theory was based in the pernicious work of the 18th-century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, seemingly based only on the first word in the title of his magnum opus The Critique of Pure Reason. Clearly this is stupid, and the Twitter hive-mind appropriately showered scorn on Guelzo’s claim. But in a more profound way, where Guelzo erred was in identifying Kant as the origin of such a perspective. It was Socrates who was responsible—and we owe him gratitude. “Only the search to the origins of one’s ideas in order to see the real arguments for them, before people became so certain of them that they ceased thinking about them at all, can liberate us,” wrote reactionary classicist Allan Bloom in Giants and Dwarves, and he was absolutely correct, though not for the reasons that he thought. Only by proper, rigorous, Socratic questioning can we hope to redeem ourselves, but the irony for a Bloom is that in that process the United States might not come up so well, capitalism might not seem so great, the bulk of the Western tradition might require some remodeling, all thanks to the time bomb hidden within that tradition itself. Contra Bloom’s staid traditionalism, but in keeping with Farnsworth’s pedagogical radicalism, Roosevelt Montás argues in his delightful and important Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changes My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation that when teaching the Platonic dialogues to low-income students in the Bronx, “Socrates whispers to them not to mistake… marks of privilege for true expressions of merit and to find in their own intellectual integrity a source of self-worth and self-respect that surpasses any material advantage their peers might have over them.” Because whatever role Socrates played in the politics of Athens, whatever he did or didn’t do that merited execution, both Montas and Farnsworth are correct that the dialectic is dangerous in the most powerful way.

Socrates was a schmuck. You see, I’m a schmuck, and I’m sure that you are as well. The common impediment of the human condition is that we’re all schmucks. We’re clowns that have slipped on the seltzer and landed in the whipped-cream pie, but some of us are looking up at the stars (or at least the mural of them on the vaudeville theater ceiling). That’s the thing with a schmuck—they’re conceited, narcissistic, egocentric, but they can also be humbled, and in such degradation is the road to something that kind of, sort of, might pass for wisdom. So often theories of humor are based in cruelty and mocking, but self-deprecating Socrates knew that the greatest target of comedic opprobrium was always the fool in his mirror. That’s the power of humility, because you can defeat your sparring partner by first defeating yourself. Something in that regard always seemed a bit Jewish about Socrates, the funny bits of him more Borscht Belt than Baklava. “Socratic philosophy starts with ‘I don’t know.’ It ends with ‘I don’t know,'” writes Farnsworth. What could be more Jewish than that? Especially since questions are the “sound of thought happening.” An anarchic jester and a wise fool, Socrates was most of all a tummler and his method was schtick. Between Athens and Jerusalem there is the prat-fall, the one-liner, the gag, the bit, the joke. Greek philosophy gave us the dialectic, and for that we should be grateful, but in the prophetic tradition of Judaism there still remains a far more redemptive mode of denouncing injustice and uncovering the lie, and that’s iconoclasm. Tell me if you’ve heard this one—the biblical patriarch Abraham’s father, Terah, was the fashioner of pagan idols. When asked to guard his father’s statues, Abraham (then known as Abram) took a stick and smashed them to bits, save for the largest one in whose hand he placed the instrument that had committed such vandalism. According to a midrash of Rabbi Hiyya, when Terah returned, the enraged father demanded of Abraham who had destroyed the idols. The son pointed to the most formidable of the idols, still holding that stick, and said “He did.” Now that’s funny.         

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