The Limits of Wisdom (Season 01:3)

Looking for Wisdom
Looking for Wisdom
The Limits of Wisdom (Season 01:3)

In this week's class, we're exploring the limits of wisdom, and we're looking at two very different philosophers, one from the European tradition, and one from the Chinese tradition: Socrates and Zhuangzi.

Socrates and Zhuang Zhou on not knowing

Welcome back. In last week's class, we saw how Aristotle carves up human activity to distinguish between production, chosen action and contemplation. And we looked at the distinction between theoretical wisdom and what Aristotle calls phronesis or practical wisdom. According to Aristotle, we can develop our faculties to become wiser, both in terms of how we think about the world and in terms of how we act.

But this week, we're going to ask about the limits of wisdom. We might think that wisdom is a good thing and that we should try to have as much of it as possible. But how practical is the goal of becoming wise? Knowing what we know about human life, is it reasonable to aspire to wisdom? And if so, how much wisdom can we hope for?  

We're going to explore these questions with the help of two very different philosophers: Zhuang Zhou, from the Chinese tradition, and Socrates from the Greek tradition. So let's dive in, and start with Socrates.

What Can We Know?

Gods, oracles and human wisdom

Socrates is one of history's most maddening, strange and perplexing philosophers. He was born in Athens around 470 BCE. His mother was a midwife and his father was a stonemason, and Socrates may have spent some time working in his father's family business. Socrates was a rough character, famously ugly, both blunt and compelling in speech. And he was driven to philosophy by a strange encounter with the oracle of the god Apollo.

According to the story Socrates tells in Plato's Apology, Socrates's childhood friend Chaerephon once went to consult the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The question he put to the oracle was this: was anyone in Athens wiser than Socrates? The oracle confirmed that there was nobody wiser than Socrates. So Chaerephon hurried back to Athens and told Socrates what the god had said. But the philosopher was perplexed by this godly pronouncement.

When I heard of this reply I asked myself: “Whatever does the god mean? What is his riddle? I am very conscious that I am not wise at all; what then does he mean by saying that I am the wisest? For surely he does not lie; it is not legitimate for him to do so.”

Plato, Apology 21a [1]
Drawing of Socrates by William Blake
William Blake, Socrates: A visionary head. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
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