Who Is the Wisest?

Posted: January 20, 2011 in Psychology


A long time ago in Greece, Socrates received word that he was the wisest man. Socrates is the featured player in the Dialogues of Plato. Here’s a simple version of how he discovered he was the wisest.


One day a friend returned from Delphi with word that the oracle there had told him Socrates was the wisest man. Socrates couldn’t believe it. How could he be the wisest man? Others gave long talks on many topics. Socrates simply asked questions and held forth on almost nothing.

He decided to prove he was not the wisest man. He sought out every kind of person and did his best to gather every bit of wisdom they had in their heads.

He discovered two things. First, everyone he talked with was very well informed about their area of expertise. Second, as he talked to them more they would move on to topics beyond their specialization and continue to talk as if they were an expert.

From talking with so many different people, Socrates was able to tell the difference between actual knowledge and uninformed conjecture. People were wise when talking about their profession but fools when talking about most other topics. They believed they knew things they did not know.

Socrates concluded the oracle was right in one way. While his only great wisdom was in the art of argument, he did not think that he was an expert in other subjects he had never studied. Socrates knew that he did not know.

Socrates then went on to have a long career helping people to see that they didn’t know as much as they thought they did. Eventually he made enough people mad that he was sentenced to death. But that’s another, much longer, story.


We can take two lessons from Socrates discovery. First, if we want to get good information from other people, we should be sure they actually have knowledge or experience in the subject we are asking about. Second, we can also be guilty of playing the fool and talking at length about things we do not know.

Part of being social is talking about many things, including things where we only have a little knowledge. What to do? Socrates found a solution to this. When he wanted to raise a topic he knew little about, he would say something like, “I don’t know a great deal about this subject. Is anyone here an expert?” If someone did claim expertise, he would have them explain the topic and question them unmercifully.

When no expert was available on a subject, he would have the group agree that they would be working in the dark but still continue in the hopes of achieving a deeper understanding through discussion.

That’s a good method for us too. If nobody really knows about something we’d like to discuss, we can still continue a conversation knowing that we are entertaining ourselves rather than being educated.

Article text copyright 2011 David Arthur Smith. All Rights Reserved.


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